The general rule in Florida is that a police officer cannot search a person’s belongings unless an established legal exception applies. Examples include: consent, a search warrant, a search incident to an arrest and probable cause to believe incriminating evidence is present and exigent circumstances. However, if a person abandons the property, he/she may no longer have standing to challenge an alleged improper search of that property.
In a recent drug case south of Jacksonville, Florida, police officers were investigating a complaint that some individuals were selling cocaine and marijuana. The police officers arrived and saw three individuals standing near the street. The police officers saw one of the individuals pass a bag to another who then dropped it behind some bushes. A police officer then went behind the bushes, grabbed the bag and opened it. He found marijuana and cocaine inside and arrested the first individual who had the drugs.
The defendant’s criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress the drugs arguing that the police officer did not have a legal basis to seize the bag and search it for illegal drugs. The issue was whether the defendant abandoned the property so that the officer was free to search it. In the search and seizure context, abandonment of property occurs when a person relinquishes his/her reasonable expectation of privacy in the property. The issue is not whether the person gave up his/her right to the property so that another person can take ownership of it.
The case law in Florida has consistently held that when a person takes a container and throws it somewhere, places it somewhere or otherwise attempts to hide it in an area it is not normally located, it will likely be considered abandoned property and subject to search by the police. Of course, if a person places a bag under his bed or some place in in his home, that would likely be a different story. But if a person places a container some place outside in an apparent effort to hide it from police (behind the house, in the bushes, under a vehicle, etc.), the courts may very well find that the police can search it.