In a recent armed robbery case west of Jacksonville, Florida, three suspects entered the victim’s home and stole certain items from him at gunpoint. The three suspects fled in a vehicle, and the victim called the police providing a description of the suspects and the vehicle. Shortly thereafter, a police officer saw a vehicle with three occupants that matched the descriptions given by the victim. The police officer stopped the vehicle and detained the occupants by handcuffing them and placing them in his police car. The police officer looked in the passenger compartment of the vehicle through the windows and did not see any evidence of the armed robbery. The police officer then opened the trunk and searched it. The police officer found a gun and drugs in the trunk. Based on this evidence, the police officer searched the passenger compartment more closely and found the items stolen in the armed robbery. Each of the occupants was arrested for armed robbery.
The criminal defense lawyers filed a motion to suppress all of the evidence arguing that the search of the trunk was illegal and that illegal search led to the subsequent search, thereby making it illegal as well. When the police stop someone in a vehicle and detain or arrest that person, they can no longer search the vehicle if the suspect is secured and no longer a threat to the officer. In the past, the police could conduct a “search incident to arrest” which was an automatic search of a car when the driver was arrested. The law changed, and now if the driver is secured, i.e. handcuffed and in the police car, that driver obviously is not a threat to the officer so the officer cannot just search the car for protection. If the police officer does have some specific reason to believe there is some danger, the police officer can search the car as a protective sweep. However, without that specific evidence of danger, the police officer can no longer search a vehicle just because the driver was arrested.
In this case, the police officer testified that he searched the trunk because he thought there might have been a suspect in the trunk. This was easily rejected by the court. A mere suspicion without any supportive facts is not going to be a legal basis for a search. A police officer must have a specific indication of evidence, danger or criminal activity to satisfy the search and seizure provisions of the Constitution.
Because the police officer searched the trunk without a legal basis, and that search was the catalyst for the subsequent search, none of the searches were legal, and all of the evidence was suppressed. As a result, the illegal search of the trunk undermined what would otherwise have been a pretty good armed robbery case.
Incidentally, had the police followed the law, they could have searched the entire vehicle fairly easily. They had a good, recent description of the vehicle and its occupants. If they had the victim come to the scene and identify the occupants, that would have been sufficient for an arrest. Upon arresting the vehicle occupants, the police could have seized the vehicle and moved it to their tow yard. When the police take possession of a vehicle under those circumstances, they are permitted to search the vehicle thoroughly as an inventory search. Under those circumstances, the police would have found all of the evidence in the vehicle lawfully, and the armed robbery case would have gone forward.