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4th Amendment & Search and Seizure

4th Amendment & Search and Seizure

It’s a balmy Saturday here in North Florida. There’s a warm, southern breeze and clear sky for miles. You all get together and decide to spend the day at the beach. Then, pack the car with your beach day essentials: towels, sunscreen, speaker, and of course, a cooler full of food and beverages!

You get on the road early and head to the nearest spot that allows open containers, Flagler Beach. You and your friends enjoy a fun day under the Florida sun. Over the course of a long day out, you and your crew responsibly enjoy a drink or two. After a relaxing day at the beach, you and your friends pack up and head home.

However, on the way home, you look into your rear-view mirror to see blue lights flashing at you to pull over, and so you comply. The officer informs you that he pulled you over for a broken taillight. After a short conversation with the officer, he instructs you to get out of the car to conduct a search.

You are now asking yourself: does the officer have the right to conduct a search and what protections does the law have to offer to me?

4th Amendment & Article I Section 12 of the Florida Constitution

Enter the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I Section 12 of the Florida Constitution. We don’t expect you to remember this lesson from the civics class you took ages ago, so here is a refresher. Simply put, the Fourth Amendment protects Americans from unreasonable search and seizures performed by the government. Florida Constitution’s Article I Section 12 further elaborates on the Fourth Amendment stating, “No warrant shall be issued except upon probable cause, supported by affidavit, particularly describing the place or places to be searched, the person or persons, thing or things to be seized, the communication to be intercepted, and the nature of evidence to be obtained.”

Search & Seizure

In order for an officer to conduct a legal search of a vehicle, he or she must have probable cause. Probable cause is often a tricky term debated in courts across the U.S. This is because the definition of probable cause is broad. In fact, Florida Law does not provide a definition for probable cause. Generally speaking, and supported by case law established in Florida, probable cause is best defined as a reasonable ground for belief that a crime had been, currently is, or will be committed, and that the belief of guilt must be particularized with respect to the person or object to be searched or seized.

There are tens of thousands of cases published from the Florida Appellate and Florida Supreme Court that support definitions similar to this definition of probable cause. A short list of these cases includes State v. Melendez, 392 So. 2d 587 and State v. Hill, 770 So. 2d 280. In addition, it is important to note that probable cause is no narrower, nor broader, than the scope of a search authorized by a warrant, as stated in State v. Fuksman, 468 So. 2d 1067.

Going back to the post-beach-day traffic stop. The officer may ask you if they may perform a search on the vehicle. If you choose to consent, you waive your Fourth Amendment right to privacy. What if the cop instructed you to step out of the vehicle and search your vehicle without consent? This raises the issue of probable cause. Often times, probable cause can be initiated when the officer witnesses an illicit object in plain view. Another common indication of probable cause is by the smell of drugs or alcohol. These are only two common examples and do not cover all instances of reasonable searches.

In this scenario, the officer informs you that he smells an odor of alcohol from the vehicle. While he may not visibly see any alcohol within cabin of the vehicle, he may be permitted to perform a search of the vehicle as this raises the issue of whether or not an alcohol related crime was, is currently, or will be committed. The officer can begin a search throughout the vehicle including areas that are not in plain sight, such as the glove compartment, center console, trunk and containers within the vehicle, such as the cooler mentioned earlier.

When you and your friends packed up the vehicle after your day at the beach, you decided to place the cooler in the back seat of the car, beside one of your passengers. The officer who is now conducting a search of your car, has discovered the cooler and has opened it to reveal an open bottle of wine and a few remaining cans of beer. Florida Law Chapter 316.1936 prohibits any alcoholic beverage container where the seal has been opened, and the container has not been placed in a locked compartment within the vehicle, and is within reach of the driver or passenger. This would be considered a lawful search and seizure within the boundaries of the U.S. Constitution and the Florida Constitution.

Now, let’s rewind and imagine if this traffic stop went differently. Again, the officer pulls you over because of your taillight. The officer peaks through the windows of the car and there is nothing in plain view that would raise any red flags. You and your friends packed your cooler with open containers of alcohol in your trunk, which is locked and cannot be easily accessible to you or your passengers. There is no aroma of alcohol present that would concern him either. Yet, the officer commands you to step out of the vehicle, despite you rejecting consent for him to search the vehicle. Does the officer state he has probable cause to search? If he doesn’t but still removes you and your friends from the vehicle so that he may conduct a search, this may cross into a territory that violates your Fourth Amendment Rights.

During this search, where probable cause has not been identified, the officer recovers some prescription medication that you keep in an unlabeled pill box in your center console. The officer is suspicious of the medication and places you under arrest for possession of a drug without a prescription pursuant to Chapter 499.03 Florida Statutes. Does the officer have the right to seize these drugs without a warrant?

This is when it’s important to have a lawyer by your side, to defend you and your rights protected by the U.S. Constitution. Here at Phillips & Hunt, we are here to help defend you in the event of an arrest caused by an unlawful search and seizure. Our team will stand by you and work to protect your right to privacy. We aim to uphold the laws that were designed to protect you in incidents like this.

If you have been charged or believe you may be charged with a crime and need an attorney, please contact our Criminal Division by calling 904-444-4444.

This blog post published by Phillips, Hunt & Walker is for informational purposes only and is not considered legal advice on any subject matter. For legal advice, please contact a licensed attorney.