What Florida Law Says About Warrantless Searches Police Perform Pursuant to a Baker Act Detention

A lot of criminal prosecutions — especially ones related to firearms or drug crimes — involve evidence seized as a result of a warrantless search. If that’s you, one of the most important parts of your defense is contesting the legality of the search and the admissibility of evidence seized in it. When it comes to suppressing evidence seized as part of a warrantless search, having representation provided by a skilled Tampa Bay criminal defense lawyer can be critical to your success.

One exception to the search warrant rule is something called a “search incident to an arrest.” If the officer has made a valid arrest, the officer can conduct a reasonable search to ensure his/her safety, such as searching for weapons.

Arrests are not the only reason that law enforcement officers involuntarily detain people. Each year, many thousands of people are involuntarily detained across Florida based on mental health concerns. According to research from the University of South Florida, officers performed roughly 200,000 of these mental health (a/k/a “Baker Act”) detentions in each of the last three years. This raises a question critical for many of those people: how much warrantless searching can the officer do?

A recent drug case from here in Pinellas County shines some light on that. K.M. allegedly sent his ex-girlfriend “suicidal text messages,” so a Clearwater officer conducted a welfare check. The officer decided that K.M. should be Baker Acted. Another officer handcuffed and searched K.M. During that search, the police found methamphetamine. This resulted in the state bringing drug charges against K.M.

An Illegal Search When the Detention Wasn’t Proper…

There are multiple ways to challenge the admissibility of evidence seized in a search made pursuant to a Baker Act detention. One is to contest the validity of the involuntary detention itself. If the officer didn’t have a legitimate basis to Baker Act you, then the resulting search necessarily is improper.

Florida law requires the officer to have probable cause. In K.M.’s case, the officer had only a text message that said, “This is it. Once you’re done reading this, I will be gone,” which the Second District Court of Appeal determined was not an explicit suicide threat, and a digital image of a hand holding a needle, but no proof indicating the hand belonged to K.M. That, the court said, wasn’t enough to meet the high standard of the Baker Act.

Because K.M.’s involuntary detention wasn’t valid, the drug evidence seized in the resulting search necessarily was inadmissible.

…and Sometimes Even if the Detention Was Valid

Another method is to assert that, even if the involuntary detention was permissible, the officer overstepped, thereby violating your Fourth Amendment rights.

Last year, the Second District looked at a drug case involving a Sarasota County woman, S.P., who was reported to be very drunk, very upset, in possession of a gun, and threatening to shoot herself.

The police Baker Acted the woman and took her into custody. The officer handcuffed S.P., then placed her in the back of a police vehicle. The officer also confiscated the woman’s wallet, which was in her back pocket. While the woman was handcuffed in the back of the police vehicle, the officer searched the wallet and found what he suspected to be cocaine.

That search was unconstitutional, according to the court. Even assuming the involuntary detention was proper, the officer had no legitimate basis to search the woman’s pocket-sized wallet after he had restrained her with handcuffs and put her in the back of his vehicle. Because there was no necessity, the search was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, making the cocaine evidence — which was the sole basis of the drug charges against S.P. — inadmissible in court.

There are many different ways in which you might encounter the police and they might search you without a warrant. When an arrest and charges result from that search, suppressing the evidence seized in that warrantless search is often a centerpiece of your defense. If you or a loved one is facing a situation like this, the skilled Tampa Bay criminal defense attorneys at Blake & Dorsten P.A. are ready to help, armed with the first-hand experience and in-depth knowledge you and your case deserve. Call us today at (727) 286-6141 to schedule your free initial consultation.

Contact Information