Most people understand that the police in Florida cannot seize a person without specific facts indicating the person is, was or is about to be involved in criminal activity. However, what is considered a seizure of a person is not always clear. It does not just mean an arrest. It can also mean commanding a person to do something he/she was not intending to do. For instance, if a police officer tells a person to get out of his/her car or to move his/her car, that can be a seizure that is not proper without a legal basis for making the request.
In a recent DUI (driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs) and possession of cocaine case south of Jacksonville, Florida, the defendant was trying to exit a parking garage in his vehicle. A nearby police officer saw that he was having trouble putting the token into the machine to raise the gate. There were vehicles behind the defendant who were waiting to get out of the parking garage. The police officer told the defendant to move his vehicle away from the gate and into a parking spot so the other vehicles could leave. The suspect did move his vehicle and then got out an started stumbling and leaning on his car for support. The officer then approached the defendant, observed that he seemed to be impaired and initiated a DUI investigation. The police officer arrested him for DUI and found cocaine in his pocket.
The criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress the evidence relating to the DUI investigation and the cocaine found in the defendant’s pocket. He argued that a police officer cannot command the defendant to move his vehicle without specific evidence that he is committing a crime. By telling the defendant to drive away from the gate to a parking spot, the police officer effectively seized the defendant without sufficient evidence that he was involved in criminal activity.
The court disagreed with the criminal defense attorney. Normally, the police officer must have specific evidence that a person is involved in criminal activity before he/she can seize a person. However, there can be other reasons justifying a seizure. One is a police officer’s community caretaking function which is necessary for public safety and welfare. In this case, the court found that the police officer had a right to make the defendant move his vehicle so the others could get out of the parking garage. This was a sufficient community caretaking function to allow the police officer to “seize” the defendant. Once the defendant parked and voluntarily exited his vehicle, the police officer observed signs of impairment from alcohol and DUI and was permitted to initiate the DUI investigation.