Impounding of Vehicles and Illegal Inventory Searches in Drug Cases in Florida

The State of Florida has some of the harshest drug laws of any state in the country. Depending on what charges the state brings against you, you may be facing extended jail time dictated by mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Given how profoundly harmful, or even life-changing, a drug conviction can be, it is essential to arm yourself with a skilled Tampa Bay criminal defense lawyer if you’ve been charged with this kind of crime.

There are lots of ways the right attorney can help. Most people facing drug charges were not spotted by the police standing on a street corner or in a parking lot holding a quantity of illegal drugs out in the open. Rather, many of these charges arise subsequent to other kinds of stops initiated by the police, including routine traffic stops. Sometimes, those stops and/or the searches that stem from them were illegal.

When that happens, you can, through your capable legal counsel, potentially get the drug evidence seized in that stop thrown out, which may create a massive hole in the prosecution’s case against you. Let’s look at the recent drug case of a man in Charlotte County that lays out a pretty typical example of how these kinds of arrests can happen, and how you can get the evidence tossed.

One mid-afternoon in March 2018, a Charlotte County deputy discovered that the license plate on L.R.’s Pontiac Sunbird was invalid, so the deputy initiated a traffic stop. This, of course, was perfectly legal.

L.R. parked in the parking lot of a public park. During the stop, L.R. admitted that his driver’s license was not valid, so the deputy arrested him for driving on a suspended license. When the deputy made the arrest, L.R. locked his car upon exiting. The deputy asked for consent to search the car, but L.R. said no. Nothing impermissible about any of that.

After the arrest, the sheriff’s department impounded L.R.’s Sunbird. During the impoundment and related inventory search of the car, the police found drugs, which served as the basis for the criminal charges of “possession of cocaine with intent to sell or deliver, possession of paraphernalia, [and] possession of a controlled substance.”

That’s some potentially serious stuff. In this state, possession with intent to sell or deliver is a felony and carries a 5-15 year prison sentence if you’re convicted.

As L.R.’s legal team correctly identified, though, the state had a problem, which occurred when the police impounded the car. You see, when you park your car in a public place (like a parking lot as L.R. did,) they cannot simply impound your vehicle and search it without a reason. If the park where L.R. parked had been a high-crime area prone to car thefts and vehicle vandalism, then that would have been a legitimate basis to impound the Pontiac, but the state gave the court no evidence like that. Indeed, the deputy who handled the case testified that people many times parked their cars in that lot and left them there overnight.

Existence of, and Adherence to, a Standardized Procedure is Required

The Second District Court of Appeal has been clear that, to impound and search an arrestee’s vehicle, the police must have “adhered to standardized procedures” or criteria. If they didn’t, then even if the officer potentially had good reasons for deciding to impound, the search is still illegal.

In L.R.’s case, the prosecution had no evidence that the deputy followed such a procedure, or even that the sheriff’s office had such a protocol. Furthermore, when the deputy testified that he was going to call a tow truck for L.R.’s Pontiac “no matter what,” the defense had all the proof required to demonstrate that the deputy was not following standardized criteria.

That was all L.R. needed to establish that the impoundment was an unreasonable warrantless seizure and the inventory search was illegal, making all of the drug evidence inadmissible at trial.

Scenarios similar to this happen all the time. Many drug crime arrests occur subsequent to traffic stops. Sometimes, those stops are illegal. Other times, the stop was legal but the police crossed the line at a subsequent point. Either way, your freedom may depend on your ability to demonstrate that the drug evidence presented against you was obtained illegally. When you’re facing those kinds of charges, protect your rights to the maximum. Reach out to the knowledgeable Tampa Bay criminal defense attorneys at Blake & Dorsten P.A., to get the effective and zealous advocacy you need. Call us today at (727) 286-6141 to schedule your FREE initial consultation.

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