In Florida and elsewhere, people have privacy rights in their vehicles. This means that the police generally cannot search a person’s vehicle for drugs or other evidence of criminal activity without consent from the owner or a search warrant. There are some exceptions to this general rule, but the police cannot just go into a person’s vehicle and search it in almost any situation.
Vehicles are more advanced now, and rather than having the traditional key that is placed into the lock to open a vehicle like a regular door, many cars come with key fobs that can open a vehicle by pressing a button. Additionally, many key fobs have a button that can be pressed that will cause the vehicle to honk so the owner can find it in a crowded parking lot.
In a possession of cocaine case south of Jacksonville, Florida, the defendant was arrested for a public disturbance. The police officer searched the defendant after the arrest. Police officers are allowed to search people immediately after an arrest to make sure a person going to jail does not have any weapons or anything else that would be a threat to the police officer or anyone else. When the police officer searched the defendant, he found a key fob. The police officer pressed a button on the key fob, and the defendant’s vehicle’s alarm went off. The officer went to the vehicle and saw a bag of cocaine on the seat. The officer was able to see the cocaine in the vehicle by looking through the window. The bag of cocaine was ultimately seized, and the defendant was arrested for possession of cocaine.
The criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress arguing that the police officer had no legal basis to press the key fob and look for the vehicle. He was right, but it was not a constitutional violation. A constitutional violation based on an illegal search or seizure only occurs when there has been an intrusion by the state upon a person or his/her private property and the person had a reasonable expectation of privacy in that property. In this case, the police officer lawfully obtained the key fob since it was found during a legal search incident to a lawful arrest. The court ruled against the defendant because the defendant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the information provided by the key fob. In other words, the key fob merely informed the police officer as to the location of the vehicle in a parking lot. A person does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the location of a vehicle in a public parking lot. As a result, there was no unconstitutional invasion of privacy.
If the key fob caused the vehicle to make an alarm sound in a garage or some other private place that resulted in a police search, this case may have been decided differently. However, because the vehicle was in a public place, the right to privacy was not implicated here.