In Florida, one exception to a search warrant requirement is consent to search from the owner of the property or someone in possession of the property who appears to have authority to give consent. Police can generally walk up to any person, vehicle or residence and ask to search without a warrant and without probable cause. If that property owner agrees, the police are free to search. However, there are limitations, and people should always understand they have a constitutional right to refuse any police request to search one’s property.
In this case, police officers drove to the defendant’s property in a rural area south of Jacksonville, Florida. They went through an open fence and ignored the “No trespassing” signs. They knocked on the front door, but no one answered. The officers then got back into their vehicle and kept driving on the property to a barn where they found marijuana. They ultimately arrested the property owner for various marijuana charges.
The criminal defense attorney filed a motion to suppress all of the marijuana evidence because the police did not have a right to come onto their property and search it. At the hearing, the police officers testified they previously had permission to enter the property. It was determined during the hearing that the permission was given three years earlier by the previous property owner.
The evidence of the marijuana was suppressed. While the police can normally walk onto a person’s property and knock on the door to ask questions, if the resident chooses to answer the door and talk, they cannot walk onto property where it appears the property owner wants to keep his/her property private. This property was surrounded by a fence and indicated a desire to avoid trespassers. It also had a long driveway so the house was not easily accessible from the street. Basically, the police are allowed to knock on the front door to a property just like any private citizen could. But, if it is clear that a private citizen would not feel welcome walking up to the front door (because there is a long driveway, a fence and no trespassing signs), the police cannot go to the front door either without a search warrant or prior consent. This case was even worse because the police did not just go to the front door but went deep into the property to go to a barn where no stranger would reasonably believe he/she was welcome. The fact that the prior homeowner gave the police permission to come onto the property years ago was a ridiculous argument that was easily rejected by the court. Because the police violated the law by trespassing onto the property and failing to follow the constitutional provisions regarding searches and seizures, the marijuana case was thrown out.
The police pretty clearly violated the law, appeared to be dishonest (at best) in their testimony in court and went to a lot of effort to try and arrest people for possessing a plant. Wouldn’t it be better if these taxpayer funded police officers spent their time, effort and credibility going after real crimes?