When the Police in Florida Can — and Can’t — Search You Without Your Consent Based on a Non-Criminal Traffic Violation

Drug and weapons offenses represent some of the most commonly charged crimes in Florida. According to the FBI, drug crimes are the #1 basis for arrests, representing nearly 1 in 7 (14%) of all arrests. Sometimes, the way the police go about obtaining the proof necessary to make those arrests violates the law and your constitutional rights. To avoid becoming a statistic, you need a skilled Tampa Bay criminal defense lawyer on your side to get illegally obtained evidence excluded from your case.

One common scenario where this comes up is after the police have made a stop due to a non-criminal traffic violation. A recent Hillsborough case — although technically a delinquency matter — is very useful because it illustrates how the police can overstep and, when they do, how a criminal suspect can get evidence suppressed.

The case originated when law enforcement officers stopped O.W. (a Hillsborough County teen) and another person for riding their bicycles at night with no lights on them. The teen stopped when the officer asked him to. He also gave his name, address, and date of birth when asked.

The officer, however, remained suspicious, based on the way O.W. held the left side of his body away from him and kept a jacket draped over his left shoulder. The officer also based his supposition on what he deemed to be O.W.’s nervous demeanor, shaky voice, and failure to make eye contact. The officer admitted on the witness stand that he never saw a weapon and did not observe a bulge in O.W.’s pants.

The officer asked to do a pat-down search. The teen said no. The officer conducted a pat-down search anyway, whereupon he found a gun inside O.W.’s underwear.

The appeals court concluded that the gun evidence should have been suppressed. As that court noted, the task of issuing a citation for failing to have proper lighting on one’s bicycle is not something that would routinely “validate a weapons frisk.”

When Warrantless Pat-Downs Are (and Aren’t) Legally OK

Law enforcement officers can only do pat-down searches in non-criminal traffic violation cases if they have some information indicating that the subject poses a threat to the officer or others. Florida courts have long held that “routine pat-down searches based on general concern for officer safety are not constitutionally permitted.” In other words, the police need “objective facts” that support a reasonable suspicion that you are armed and dangerous before they can do an involuntary pat down.

If, for example, an officer stops someone who exhibits nervous behavior and has a visible bulge in his clothes that’s consistent with a gun, then that’s enough to warrant an involuntary pat down. On the other hand, if an officer has only a detainee’s refusal to remove his hands from his pockets or observes only movement the officer considers “furtive,” that alone isn’t enough to allow for an involuntary pat-down search.

In O.W.’s case, the teen’s stance was unusual and might lead an officer to wonder if the teen was hiding something. However, without something more to go on, the officer was not constitutionally permitted to do a pat-down search without O.W.’s consent. As a result, the gun should have been excluded and the case against O.W. thrown out.

When you’re facing a firearm possession charge, the law potentially offers multiple defenses. One of those happens when the police obtain vital evidence by conducting a warrantless search without your consent. Weapons crimes are subject to Florida’s 10/20/life law, so the stakes in these matter are extremely high. The skilled Tampa Bay criminal defense attorneys at Blake & Dorsten P.A. are dedicated to fighting for clients facing charges like these. Our previous experience as prosecutors gives us unique insight into how to attack — and defeat — the state’s case against you. Call us today at (727) 286-6141 to schedule your free initial consultation.

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