There are many ways in which law enforcement officers can overstep or misstep in conducting a warrantless search pursuant to a traffic stop. When they do, those errors may mean the search was unconstitutional and you are entitled to suppression of the proof they found. This blog post will look at a couple of ways that officers can err. Keep in mind that, when an officer missteps, a skilled Tampa Bay criminal defense lawyer can be essential to success in court when it comes to the suppression of evidence seized in an illegal search.
An example of one of the ways police can violate your rights comes from one of our sister states… California. The accused was a man driving in the Bay Area when the police pulled him over for two minor traffic violations. The time required to check for outstanding warrants, confirm the validity of the driver’s license, registration, and insurance, and decide whether or not to write a ticket took roughly 3 1/2 minutes.
But the stop didn’t end there. Allegedly, an officer suspected the driver of being under the influence of drugs, so he ordered him out of the car and conducted field sobriety tests, which the driver passed. This took roughly six additional minutes. But the stop didn’t end there, either.
A Stop of Unnecessarily Long Duration
Instead, the officer regaled the driver with all the legal reasons for the stop… the procedural reasons why they ordered the driver out of his car… even the officer’s own misspent youth and childhood brushes with law enforcement.
Several minutes later, a K-9 unit finally arrived. Then, some 18-20 minutes after the original officer pulled the driver over, a narcotics dog alerted on the driver’s vehicle and the police conducted a full search, finding cocaine and methamphetamine.
The California Court of Appeal concluded that this was an illegal search. The crucial case on this issue is the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in Rodriguez v. United States. The justices said in that case that a traffic stop may last “no longer than is necessary to” address the original purpose — dealing with the traffic infraction(s). A stop that police officers prolong beyond that point becomes an illegal seizure and a Fourth Amendment violation, which was what happened to the Bay Area driver.
A Stop of Reasonable Duration… But With a Twist
There’s another circumstance that crops up with some frequency, and this one’s an issue with which the Florida Supreme Court currently is grappling. This case involved a traffic stop in our Bay Area (Hillsborough County) after a driver allegedly dodged a red light by cutting through a gas station (which is a violation of Florida Statutes Section 316.074(2).)
The driver provided his license, registration, and proof of insurance. The officers confirmed that everything was in order: the car wasn’t stolen, the license wasn’t suspended, and the driver had no outstanding warrants. Nevertheless, the police radioed for a K-9 unit. The narcotics dog arrived, and the police sought the driver’s exit from his car so the dog could perform his duty. The driver refused, a struggle ensued and, as part of that struggle, the police searched the driver, finding a baggie of methamphetamine on him.
In the local case, unlike the California one, the K-9 unit’s involvement did not prolong the length of the stop and the total duration was a reasonable one. However, the duration of the stop was not the key issue, according to the Second District Court of Appeal. Because the police ordered the driver out of his car, the crucial analysis was “whether that command to exit the vehicle constituted an unreasonable seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment.”
The court said it was. Officers may order drivers out of their cars to ensure officer safety, but there was no safety need implicated by the issuance of the traffic citation. The only safety interest involved related to a search for narcotics that the police lacked reasonable suspicion to conduct.
The state has appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, where the matter is pending.
Many criminal cases are the result of — or the state’s case is enhanced by — evidence the police procured in a warrantless search. If that happened to you, it’s possible the police violated your rights. The skillful and knowledgeable Tampa Bay criminal defense attorneys at Blake & Dorsten P.A. have handled countless drug cases, so we can outline for you your full range of options, including using a “Motion to Suppress” to get illegally obtained evidence thrown out. Call us today at (727) 286-6141 to schedule your free initial consultation.