Florida Supreme Court Says It Is “Reasonable” for Police to Detain, Question Passengers During Traffic Stops
Many criminal cases in Florida start with a traffic stop. An officer may initially intend to cite the driver for something like a broken taillight, only to discover there is evidence of some other crime, such as DUI or drug possession. But what about the passengers in the vehicle? Can the police detain or interrogate them about potential criminal activity unrelated to the traffic stop itself?
Passenger Caught Violating Probation, Sentenced to Multiple Prison Terms
A recent decision by the Florida Supreme Court provides an answer for these questions–and it is not encouraging. This case involves a defendant who was a passenger in a friend’s vehicle. A police officer in Gainesville initiated a traffic stop due to a “faulty taillight and a stop sign violation,” according to court records.
The stop lasted longer than normal because another passenger–not the defendant–had “exited the vehicle and attempted to leave.” The officer called for backup in order to secure this passenger. In the meantime, the officer asked the defendant for his name and identification. The officer made it clear the defendant “can’t go anywhere at the moment because you’re part of the stop.”
While detained, the officer ran a background check and discovered the defendant was on probation for a prior drug offense. A condition of that probation was that the defendant could not consume alcohol. But the defendant admitted to the officer he had been drinking. Consequently, the officer arrested the defendant for the probation violation and. In addition, while searching the defendant as part of the arrest process, the officer found a bag of cocaine.
The trial court held the police officer’s actions were legal and sentenced the defendant to “multiple terms of incarceration” for his prior drug crimes. The defendant appealed, specifically challenging the legality his detention during the traffic stop as a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. But both the intermediate court of appeal and the Florida Supreme Court agreed with the trial judge’s ruling.
Indeed, the Florida Supreme Court took this opportunity to announce a “bright-line rule” that “law enforcement officers may, as a matter of course, detain the passengers of a vehicle for the reasonable duration of a traffic stop without violating the Fourth Amendment.” This is consistent with recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court on this issue, the Florida justices said, and was necessary to ensure the protection of police from potentially “dangerous” traffic stops.
That said, the Florida Supreme Court made it clear that during a “routine” traffic stop–which this case was not, due to the actions of the other passenger and the need for backup–police may only detain a passenger for the length of time necessary to check the driver’s license and registration, determine if there are any outstanding warrants, and issue an appropriate citation for the applicable traffic violations. Police may not unduly prolong a stop in an attempt to harass the passengers or go fishing for evidence of other potential crimes without probable cause.
Are You Facing Serious Criminal Charges?
The Florida Supreme Court’s decision is also a reminder that if you are detained by police–even if you believe the detention is unlawful–do not volunteer information or answer questions that might serve to incriminate you later. Always assume that you are under suspicion. And if you are arrested and charged with an offense, you should contact an experienced Miami criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. Call the Law Offices of Julia Kefalinos at 305-676-9545 if you need to speak with an attorney today.