In a Florida mortgage fraud case, the police obtained an arrest warrant for a person they claimed had obtained fraudulent mortgage loans by using straw buyers and falsifying salary and employment information on loan documents. The police located the suspect driving near her home, stopped her vehicle and arrested her. When she was arrested in her vehicle, the police saw a bag in the backseat containing various documents. The police seized the bag of documents when they arrested her.
The suspect was ultimately convicted after her trial for mortgage fraud, grand theft and racketeering. Her criminal defense lawyer tried to have the documents found in the bag thrown out claiming the police illegally seized those documents. The criminal defense attorney claimed that the police did not have a search warrant for the bag of documents and had no reason to believe the bag contained evidence related to the case at the time the bag was seized. The criminal defense lawyer argued that unlike drugs or guns, nothing about a bag of papers suggests that it is evidence of criminal activity, and therefore the police do not have a right to take it without a search warrant.
However, the judge disagreed and allowed the state to use the documents as incriminating evidence to convict the defendant of the mortgage fraud and the related criminal charges. Under Florida law, when the police arrest a person in his/her vehicle, the police are permitted to search the vehicle if the suspect is within arm’s reach of items in the passenger compartment of the vehicle at the time of arrest or there is reason to believe the vehicle has evidence related to the crime(s) for which the suspect is being arrested. In this case, the judge found that latter standard to have a very low threshold. Basically, the judge found that since mortgage fraud is the kind of crime where one would expect there to be physical evidence, perhaps in a vehicle, the police were authorized to assume the bag they seized might have contained evidence of the related crimes. As a result, the police were justified in seizing the bag.
This was a crucial decision in this case. We have handled many mortgage fraud cases, and the documents are critical to the state’s ability to prove their case. Whether such documents are permitted as evidence in a mortgage fraud trial can be the difference between a conviction and a not guilty verdict. This kind of decision allowing the police to search a vehicle on an assumption can obviously have serious ramifications in gun and drug cases as well.