Police Investigatory Stops, ‘Reasonable Suspicion, and Fourth Amendment Search and Seizure Law in Florida

A lot of arrests start out as something smaller. It could be a traffic stop or an officer stopping someone on foot to ask them questions. The law in Florida says that the police must have a “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity before they stop you. If they did not, then an investigatory stop may be a violation of your constitutional rights and any evidence they procured from that stop may be subject to suppression if you have to go to trial. A skilled Tampa Bay criminal defense lawyer knowledgeable in Fourth Amendment law can enhance your chances of winning arguments about search-and-seizure violations, reasonable suspicion, probable cause, and more.

The Florida Supreme Court made news headlines last month with an important ruling about stops. The high court said that law enforcement officers may, while making a lawful traffic stop, permissibly command a driver to exit a vehicle to allow a K-9 officer to perform a sniff sweep of the automobile. Doing so, the court said, was not a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The court, in siding with the state, looked to a 1977 ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, Pennsylvania v. Mimms. In that decision, the court said that “an exit command given by an officer during a lawful traffic stop is” not a violation of the driver’s constitutional rights.

The key to these traffic stop rulings is that the initial investigatory stop must have been lawful. If it was not, all of these rules are inapplicable and the interaction potentially becomes a Fourth Amendment violation.

What Makes an Investigatory Stop Law Versus Unlawful?

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1968 opinion in Terry v. Ohio is the foundational court case related to this question. That ruling said that the police do not violate a person’s Fourth Amendment rights when they stop that person as long as:

  1. The detention is brief
  2. The officer had a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity

Reasonable suspicion is enough, even if the officer did not have probable cause to make an arrest at that time. Having read that, you probably wonder…

What is Reasonable Suspicion?

The Florida Supreme Court has expressly said that “the law requires not just a mere suspicion of criminal activity, but a reasonable, well-founded one.” This means the officer’s suspicion must be “based on facts ‘inherently suspicious’ or ‘unusual’ enough or so ‘out of the ordinary’ as to provide an officer with a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.”

The courts make these rulings on a case-by-case basis and their decisions are generally highly fact-intensive. Successfully demonstrating an absence of reasonableness can be the key to winning a motion to suppress key evidence and securing an acquittal or dismissal.

In a recent case from Tampa, the appeals court clarified one scenario that does not constitute reasonableness. The accused, M.C., was “walking casually” through an apartment complex located in a “high crime” area when an undercover officer spotted what he believed was a concealed gun holster. The officer asked the man multiple times if he had a permit for his weapon. The man and his cohort both ignored the officer and continued walking.

The man was not seen “running, being loud or causing a disturbance, pulling the gun out, threatening anyone, making furtive movements, or engaging in any suspicious transactions.” All the state had to go on was that M.C. was seen in possession of a concealed handgun while walking in a “high crime” area and ignored questions a police officer posed to him.

That was not enough, the appeals court determined. In fact, the court noted, sometimes even fleeing while in a high-crime area is not enough to support reasonable suspicion unless the officer also had something more to go on.

What these cases recognize is that, just because the police ask you questions, you are not necessarily under an obligation to answer them… or to say anything at all. If the situation escalates to an interrogation, your next step should be to invoke your right to counsel.

When that time comes, look to the experienced Tampa Bay criminal defense attorneys at Blake & Dorsten P.A. We are former state prosecutors, so we know how area police (and State Attorneys) work and what their tendencies are. We work vigorously to get charges dropped when possible or else reduced when that’s not available. To find out more, call us today at (727) 286-6141 to schedule your free initial consultation.

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