In Florida, there are multiple levels of police encounters, and with each one, there may be certain legal requirements on the part of the police officer to justify the police officer’s actions. The first level encounter is a brief, consensual encounter where a police officer is not required to have any evidence that the suspect is involved in criminal activity. In these encounters, because the police officer does not have any evidence of criminal activity and is just casually requesting information, the suspect is free to refuse the police officer’s requests and leave the scene. However, if the encounter becomes more serious and a reasonable person would not believe he/she was free to ignore the police officer and leave, it becomes more than a casual, consensual encounter.
In a second level encounter, the police can briefly detain a suspect to see if the suspect is involved in any criminal activity and/or possibly armed and a threat to the officer’s safety. As stated, this encounter must be quick and cannot be too intrusive. In order to justify such an encounter, the police officer must know of specific facts giving the officer reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is occurring or the person is armed and dangerous. If that reasonable suspicion is not quickly confirmed, the encounter must end.
The third level encounter involves a long, intrusive detention by the police officer or an outright arrest. In order to justify this kind of detention, the police officer must have probable cause to believe the suspect was involved in criminal activity or an actual arrest warrant.
In which level does a check of a person’s name and date of birth for outstanding arrest warrants belong? In a recent criminal case south of Jacksonville, Florida, a police officer responded to a call of illegal drug activity and observed the defendant standing next to a building. Without activating the emergency lights or drawing his weapon, the police officer approached the defendant and asked him for his name and date of birth. The defendant gave the information, the police officer ran it in his computer and learned that the defendant had an outstanding arrest warrant. The police officer arrested the defendant and found him in possession of marijuana bags. The defendant was charged with possession with intent to sell marijuana.
The criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress the marijuana claiming that the police officer did not have reasonable suspicion that the defendant was involved in criminal activity when the officer asked him for his name and date of birth. The state agreed but alleged that this was a first level, consensual encounter and no reasonable suspicion was needed.
The court ruled in favor of the state and found that this was a first level encounter, and a police officer is allowed to ask for a person’s name and date of birth without any evidence the person is involved in criminal activity. The court also necessarily found that the defendant was free to refuse the officer and leave.
In the real world, we know that when the police are investigating drug complaints and ask the defendant for his name and date of birth and the defendant refuses and walks away, the police officer is not going to leave it at that. But in the legal world, if the police officer makes a case that he was simply asking for the suspect’s name and date of birth and would have taken no for an answer, a court may likely find the police officer can do this without any indication the person had done anything wrong.