Under search and seizure law in Florida, the police need to have reasonable suspicion that a suspect is involved in criminal activity before he/she can briefly detain the suspect for further investigation. A detention does not necessarily consist of a police officer telling a person to stop or stopping a person for a traffic violation. Sometimes, a detention can be a little more subtle. If the police officer does not have a legitimate legal basis to detain a suspect, any evidence that police officer may find as a result of the detention should be thrown out.
In a recent drug case near Jacksonville, Florida, a police officer was patrolling a known drug area in the early morning hours when he saw someone alone in a vehicle parked near a residential area. The vehicle was legally parked, but the officer found it suspicious that the person was alone in a vehicle at that hour with all of the lights off. The police officer drove up to the suspect and stopped his police car near the vehicle. The police officer activated his emergency lights because he wanted to make sure other cars could see his vehicle and shined his flashlight into the suspect’s vehicle. The police officer approached the suspect and said he smelled an odor of marijuana coming from the vehicle. The police officer said he saw a partially smoked marijuana blunt in the ashtray and arrested the suspect. Upon arrest, the police officer found some cocaine on the suspect. The suspect was eventually charged with possession of marijuana and possession of cocaine.
The criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress the evidence of the marijuana and the cocaine. He argued that the police officer did not have a right to detain the defendant just based on a suspicion when he merely saw the defendant alone in his vehicle in the dark. The state argued that the police officer did not actually detain the defendant until he smelled the marijuana and saw the marijuana blunt. At that point, the police officer did have reasonable suspicion to detain the defendant for committing the crime of possession of marijuana and had probable cause to arrest him on that charge.
The court agreed with the criminal defense lawyer. The key question on the detention issue was whether the defendant reasonably felt he was free to leave. If the police officer’s actions indicate to the suspect that he is not free to leave at that point, he is being detained. The court found that the police officer parking near the suspect, activating his emergency lights and shining his flashlight into the vehicle was enough for the suspect to feel that he was not free to leave. Therefore, the suspect was detained under the law in Florida. Because the police officer, at that point, did not have any specific evidence that the suspect was doing anything illegal, he did not have a legal basis to detain the suspect. As a result, the marijuana and cocaine that were found after the illegal detention were thrown out of court.
This does not mean that a detention occurs every time a police officer pulls up to a person and activates his/her emergency lights. If a person’s vehicle is disabled on the side of the road or a person appears to otherwise need assistance, a police officer can pull up to a person and activate the emergency lights for safety reasons. This alone would likely not be a detention. If a police officer then saw drugs or other evidence of criminal activity, a motion to suppress that evidence may not be successful. However, in this case, there was no evidence that the person was in need of assistance or doing anything illegal. The police officer detained the suspect based on suspicion alone which is not sufficient for a legal detention.