Certain types of alleged crimes — namely, drug and/or weapon charges — frequently arise from evidence that the police seized in a search performed without a warrant. The law generally falls on the side of disallowing warrantless searches, but the law also has many exceptions that the state can use to get items seized without a warrant into evidence. Many times, the key to a successful defense is countering those arguments and persuading the court that no exception applies and that the court should exclude the item(s) in dispute. Having a knowledgeable Tampa Bay criminal defense lawyer on your side can be crucial to doing that successfully.
Sometimes, the police have no justification at all for the search they performed. Oftentimes, though, as a recent weapons case from the Orlando area shows, the issue is whether or not the police exceeded the bounds of what a potentially applicable exception allows.
The accused man from Orange County, J.J., arrived home to find local deputies already there, having arrived to serve an arrest warrant. The suspect had two bags on his body: a backpack on his back and a “fanny pack” on his chest. After the man refused orders to stop and instead went into his garage, the deputies tackled and handcuffed him. After that, they removed both bags, placing the fanny pack on the hood of a car.
The fanny pack had a key lock on it. One of the deputies felt and squeezed the pack and concluded that it possibly had a gun in it, though he couldn’t be sure. Another deputy searched J.J., found the key, unlocked the pack, and found a gun. As a result, the state brought a charge for possession of a firearm or ammunition by a convicted felon.
The key to the case against J.J. was whether or not the search of the fanny pack was legal.
The ‘Search Incident to an Arrest’ Exception
One of the exceptions to the rule against warrantless searches is a search “incident to a lawful arrest.” This exception exists to ensure officer safety and to prevent an arrestee from potentially destroying evidence. The Florida Supreme Court, following U.S. Supreme Court precedent, has made it clear that the “search incident to a lawful arrest” exception is a limited one and only allows the police to search “the arrestee’s person and the area within his immediate control, i.e., the area into which he may reach to acquire a weapon or destroy evidence.”
The inherent implication of this rule is that if an arrestee can’t reach an item, then the exception generally doesn’t permit a warrantless search of that item.
In J.J.’s case, when the police searched the fanny pack, J.J. was handcuffed and standing roughly 8-10 feet away from the pack. One of the deputies, who stood between J.J. and the pack, “had exclusive control over the fanny pack at all times after the officers removed it” from J.J. During the trial, two deputies testified that if J.J. “had attempted to reach the fanny pack, he would not have been able to do so.”
The ‘Evidence Relevant to the Crime of Arrest’ Exception
That evidence established that the locked pack was outside the zone of the arrestee’s “immediate control,” and therefore the exception did not apply. The Court of Appeal also concluded that, contrary to the trial judge’s ruling, a second exception — evidence relevant to the crime of arrest — did not make the evidence admissible. That’s because the law extends that exception only to searches of vehicles and containers inside vehicles. Had the deputies pulled over J.J. while he was driving and had the fanny pack been underneath the seat of his car, the result might have been different. However, the fanny pack in this case was on J.J.’s body, so the exception didn’t apply, the police didn’t have a legal basis for searching the fanny pack and the accused man was entitled to have the evidence of the gun excluded.
Weapons cases — like drug cases — can rise and fall based on whether or not the police used legal steps to acquire the evidence at the heart of the state’s case. If the guns or the drugs at the center of the case against you were the results of an illegal search in violation of the Fourth Amendment, you may be able to get that evidence suppressed, which may in turn lead to an acquittal or even a dismissal of the charges. The knowledgeable Tampa Bay criminal defense attorneys at Blake & Dorsten P.A. are keenly familiar with making — and winning — these kinds of motions in the service of protecting our clients’ constitutional rights. To find out more, call us today at (727) 286-6141 to schedule your free initial consultation.