Pursuant to both the United States and the Florida Constitutions, people have a right to privacy in their homes. This means that the police normally cannot come into a person’s home and search for drugs or other evidence of criminal activity without a valid search warrant or consent from someone who lives there. This right to privacy protection applies to homeowners, people who rent apartments and other residents. It also applies to less traditional residences like rooming houses.
In a recent possession of cocaine case near Jacksonville, Florida, the defendant was staying at a rooming house along with many other people. The defendant had a room there and a key to the room. He kept his belongings there. The police showed up to the area while responding to an unrelated call. The defendant had a pill bottle that he placed under the rooming house when he saw the police. The police officer became suspicious, walked onto the property, reached under the house and pulled out the pill bottle. He opened it and found cocaine inside. The defendant was arrested for possession of cocaine.
The criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress the evidence of the pill bottle and the cocaine. He argued that the police officer did not have a search warrant or consent to come onto the property and take a pill bottle that was under the house. The issue became whether the defendant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in a rooming house in which he was staying. If he did, a police officer cannot come onto the property and take a pill bottle from underneath it that belonged to the defendant.
The state first argued that the defendant abandoned the pill bottle which gave the police officer the right to seize it. However, abandonment does not apply to property placed where a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy. Abandonment is normally applicable when a person throws an item away into the trash which is left out for collection or when a suspect throws an item out of a car window when the police are chasing him/her. Abandonment does not apply when a person places an item inside his own property or property where he has a right to privacy.
The court decided that a rooming house and the foundation of a rooming house where a person is staying are places where he has a reasonable expectation of privacy. The case might have been decided differently if this was a place that was open to the public and anyone could walk in and stay where the defendant was staying. But this was not open to the public and had doors that could be locked. Additionally, the area under the rooming house was different from a porch. The general public might be allowed to walk onto a porch of a building, but it is not expected that the general public would go underneath a building to look for things or do anything else. Therefore, that area was considered private.
Finally, the state also argued that the police had a right to take the pill bottle because it was in plain view. The plain view doctrine applies to obviously illegal items that the police can see in plain view even if it is located in a private area they could not otherwise search without a search warrant or consent. For instance, the police are not allowed to search your car, but if they can see a bag of apparent cocaine through the window on the seat, that would likely give them authority to search the vehicle and seize the cocaine.
However, a pill bottle is different. Nothing about a pill bottle suggests illegal drugs or criminal activity. Anything small could be in a pill bottle, and even if pills were in the pill bottle, any belief by the police officer that the pills were illegal would be pure speculation. Police cannot search items in protected areas based on pure speculation.
For these reasons, the search was unlawful, and the evidence of the cocaine was thrown out.