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Was it okay for a law enforcement officer to search me or my house and/or take my belongings? Reasonable suspicion and its implications

Have you or someone you know recently been arrested after a law enforcement officer searched you and took something? Do you think they did so without probable cause? Are you unsure of the circumstances surrounding your arrest? Fortunately, you have certain rights afforded to you by the constitution that protect you from a law enforcement officer’s actions—just as they have certain responsibilities to uphold justice and carry out their duties in the prescribed manner.

The 4th Amendment of the United States Constitution states that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” The Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment prohibits state and local governments from depriving people of life, liberty or property without first taking certain steps to ensure fairness.

These amendments protect you from having your property searched or taken without sufficient reason. In order for the 4th Amendment to apply, first, a search or seizure must have occurred, then the prosecutor in the criminal case must attempt to use it against the defendant. In a recent case from the 4th District Court of Appeals, a Defendant’s convictions for possession with intent to sell, manufacture, or deliver cocaine within 1000 feet of a park, community center or recreational facility and resisting an officer without violence were overturned when the court found that the Defendant was subjected to a detention not supported by reasonable suspicion.

A Detective with the Stuart Police Department received a tip from an anonymous (unidentifiable) informant citing “suspicious activity” at a strip mall where the Defendant was located at the time of his arrest. The Detective showed up on the scene with his partner, and they observed what they claimed to be “suspicious activity” and described several men entering and exiting a not yet operational business through the building’s rear entrance. The Detective approached the Defendant’s car in the parking lot of the strip mall, in which the Defendant was sitting. The Defendant looked down into the vehicle’s center console, then up at the approaching Detective.

The Detective could not see the Defendant’s hands, so he asked the man what he was doing. The Defendant denied going into the center console, and the Detective asked him to step out of his vehicle. The Detective stated that the Defendant appeared nervous and fidgety. The man got out of the car, and the Detective attempted to conduct a pat down but the Defendant swatted his hand away and was promptly arrested and searched. Through the search, the Detective seized crack cocaine as well as $2000 cash from the Defendant. Thornton v. State of Florida, 80 So. 3d 1141 (Fla. 4th DCA 2012).

Although the Defendant was undeniably in possession of crack cocaine, the Court ruled that the cocaine and cash obtained as evidence in a criminal proceeding through the search should have been suppressed (meaning not allowed for use in court) since the officer lacked reasonable suspicion to detain the Defendant in the first place. The ruling cited the facts that the tip received by the officer was vague and contained no allegations of specific criminal activity, only “suspicious” yet innocent behavior, and that the Defendant’s “nervous” conduct and subsequent lying to the Detective did not provide reasonable suspicion for detention.

The absence of reasonable suspicion to conduct the search and seizure of the Defendant rendered the entire procedure illegitimate and resulted in the reversal of both of the Defendant’s convictions. For the Detective to have had reasonable suspicion in this situation, the tip received from an anonymous source would have had to come from a “reliable informant” such as an identifiable citizen who observes criminal (not just suspicious) conduct and reports it, along with his identity, to the police. The tip would have also had to offer more than innocent details visible to any passerby—it should have contained specific details of criminal activity in order to be labeled credible.

Searches can occur as the result numerous benign offenses. Maybe you were driving without functioning tail lights or made an improper lane change and were subsequently pulled over. Perhaps you were at a loud party that was broken up by the police. In any of such situations, it’s important to be aware of your right to not be searched improperly or have your property taken by a law enforcement officer.

If you have been arrested after a search and seizure, it is critical that you seek the counsel of a criminal lawyer immediately. Be sure to inform your attorney of the specific details of the search and seizure that occurred as well as any other pertinent details, so that a thorough investigation can be conducted.

Contact the Law Offices of Stephen K. Miller for a free consultation with one of our attorneys at (866) 496-8752 or via email at Info@ForYourLaw.com.
BY: Monica Perez-McMillen, Attorney at Law
May 23, 2012

 
 
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