The search and seizure laws deal with when, and under what circumstances, police officers can search a person or his/her property for drugs or other evidence of criminal activity. A general rule is that the police officer can ask a person if he/she can conduct a search and if the person consents, then the police officer is free to search without probable cause or a search warrant. However, there are exceptions to this general rule.
In a recent case south of Jacksonville, Florida, a police officer was responding to a call of suspicious activity and observed the defendant walking near a house in a residential neighborhood. The police officer made contact with the suspect and asked him for his driver’s license. The suspect gave up his driver’s license, the police officer ran the information in his computer and did not find any warrants for the suspect. After checking the suspect and finding nothing illegal, the police officer asked the suspect if he could search him. The police officer still had the suspect’s driver’s license at the time. For some reason, the suspect agreed, and the police officer found illegal pain pills in his pocket. The suspect was arrested for possession of hydrocodone.
The criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress the evidence of the pain pills. The criminal defense attorney argued that the suspect was being detained at the time the police officer asked for consent to search, and the detention was not based on any evidence of illegal activity. Therefore, the consent to search was tainted and invalid.
The court agreed and threw out the drug evidence. In this case, the police officer did have a right to request identification and run it to see if anything popped up on the system. However, once the suspect came up clean and without any evidence that he was committing a crime, the police officer was obligated to return his driver’s license. Since he did not return the driver’s license, the suspect was effectively being detained since he could not feel free to leave while the officer was withholding his driver’s license. Since the suspect was being detained without a legal basis, his consent to search that he gave the police officer was invalid.