Here in Florida (and around the United States,) you have the right to be free of intrusive interactions with the police unless the officers have a reasonable basis for detaining you. If the police confront you without the proper reasoning for doing so, then any incriminating evidence they seized in that interaction may be inadmissible against you at trial. Getting that evidence suppressed requires a properly timed motion, supported by a well-stated argument in support of it. Given how critical these kinds of motions and arguments can be to the success of your defense — and therefore to your ultimate freedom — it is vital that you have a knowledgeable Tampa Bay criminal defense lawyer on your side.
A recent drug possession case from Pasco County shows how the police can overstep their bounds and what you can do when that happens.
In the summer of 2019, New Port Richey police officers responded to a motel where a housekeeper had found a gun in a vacant room. The motel manager provided the names of the man and woman who had last rented the room. The officers discovered that the man was a middle-aged white man named Keith, who was “of average build and height.” They also discovered that the gun was stolen and that Keith was a convicted felon.
Keith and the woman had moved to a different room at the same motel, which the police officers staked out. After they saw a white man of average height and build emerge briefly from the room, they approached. When the man answered the officers’ knock, they — with guns drawn — pulled the man out (or otherwise persuaded him outside.) They took him down the hall and handcuffed him, ostensibly for “officer safety.”
After the man made what an officer interpreted as a furtive movement, the officer “took him to the ground.” They then searched the man and found a pouch around his waist that contained illegal drugs. On that evidence, the state filed charges on six counts of drug possession. Here’s one more fact: the man on trial wasn’t Keith, but a completely different middle-aged white man named Gary.
Gary’s defense team moved to suppress the drug evidence the police seized. While the trial court sided with the prosecution, the Court of Appeal determined that the evidence was inadmissible.
Here in Florida, the law establishes three types of interactions with law enforcement officers. The one with the fewest constitutional implications is the “consensual encounter.” In these scenarios, you’re completely free to stay or leave. You can respond to the police or ignore them. If you’re not actually free to leave and/or ignore the officers, then it’s not a consensual encounter.
The second type of stop is an “investigatory stop,” sometimes known as “stop and frisk.” In this circumstance, the officer may stop the citizen briefly if the officer has a reasonably articulable suspicion that the person “has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime.”
The final type of stop is an arrest, which requires officers to have probable cause to believe a crime is being committed or has been committed.
Multiple Guns Drawn Belied the Encounter’s ‘Consensual’ Nature
The prosecution in Gary’s case tried to argue that the officer’s interactions with Gary qualified as a consensual encounter — specifically something known as a “knock and talk.” The appeals court swiftly rejected that contention. Hallmarks of consensual encounters are an absence of displays of authority that “would lead “a reasonable person [to] conclude that he or she is not free to end the encounter” and leave. If the police utilize coercive, overbearing tactics, then that is not a legitimate, permissible knock-and-talk.
Coercive and overbearing tactics were exactly what happened to Gary. As the appeals court noted, no “reasonable person would feel unrestricted and free upon opening his door to be confronted by multiple officers with firearms drawn and a rifle trained at the room from a few dozen yards away.”
‘Stop and Frisk’ Requires More than a ‘Hunch’
The interaction also wasn’t a valid investigatory stop. The minimal information the police possessed “barely even supported a hunch, let alone a reasonable suspicion” that anyone had committed a weapons crime, much less that Gary was the one who had perpetrated it.
As a result, the search was illegal, the drug evidence was inadmissible, and Gary was entitled to have the charges against him dismissed.
Fourth Amendment-related search and seizure rules afford a person accused of drug crimes some of his strongest defense tools. If the police didn’t have the proper basis for doing what they did, then you may be able to get the evidence tossed and may even be entitled to a dismissal of all charges. The experienced Tampa Bay criminal defense attorneys at Blake & Dorsten, P.A. are former prosecutors who understand the way the state takes on these cases, and we know how to develop the most potent defenses against those charges. Call us at 727-286-6141 or contact us online to schedule your FREE initial consultation.