In Florida criminal defense cases, issues often arise regarding whether a police officer’s decision to stop, search or arrest a person was appropriate. In cases where a court finds that the officer acted inappropriately, the remedy is typically to toss out the evidence gained as a result of the stop or search or dismiss the charges altogether. As the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida recently ruled in Dowling v. City of Fort Lauderdale, however, a person wrongly stopped, searched or arrested can also bring a suit for damages against the offending officer and his or her employer.
Jeffrey Dowling sued the City of Fort Lauderdale and Detective Mike Freeley after an incident in which he was briefly detained, handcuffed and search during a drug-related investigation by the Fort Lauderdale Police Department and U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency
In January 2009, FLPD was contacted by a DEA agent who asked the Department to locate and stop a Chrysler Pacifica van that the agent believed was carrying a kilogram of cocaine. DEA had previously attached a tracking device to the vehicle and gave FLPD the information necessary to locate it. The cops traced the car to the parking lot of a Deerfield Beach convenience store. While observing the vehicle, officer Shannon Dameron saw Dowling and another person pull up and park next to the vehicle. According to Dameron, Dowling exchanged words with the driver of the Pacifica before going inside to purchase lottery tickets.
Freeley and other officers arrived on the scene shortly thereafter and Dameron informed him that Dowling was “possibly involved” with the Pacifica driver. Freeley entered the store, instructed Dowling to put his hands behind his back and proceeded to handcuff him. Freeley then escorted Dowling outside, where he was frisked and detained for 20 minutes before being released.
Dowling denied that he spoke with the Pacifica’s driver prior to entering the store. He sued the city and Freeley alleging claims for false arrest under Florida law and unreasonable search and seizure pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Prior to trial, the district court granted Dowling’s motion for summary judgment in his favor on both claims, finding that Freeley did not have proper grounds for detaining and searching Dowling and that his use of handcuffs was unreasonable.
In order to stop a person for questioning or investigation, police must have “reasonable suspicion” that the person has or is committing a crime. “Although the `reasonable suspicion’ standard is less demanding than probable cause, it must be more than an `inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or hunch,” the court explained, quoting the Eleventh Circuit’s 1999 decision in United States v. Simmons. In determining whether reasonable suspicion existed in a suspected drug transaction, courts look at a number of factors, including the stopping officer’s experience and the nature of the exchange.
Here, the court found no reasonable suspicion to believe that Dowling was engaged in criminal activity because there was no hand-to-hand exchange between him and the Pacifica driver and Dowling did not attempt to flee or evade the police officers. That his car was simply parked next to the Pacifica was not sufficient, according to the court.
For the same reasons, the court ruled that the handcuffing and search were also not justified. Because Freeley was working in his official capacity at the time of the incident, the court further held that the City was liable for his actions. As a result, the court granted summary judgment to Dowling and ordered that a trial be scheduled to determine his damages.
If you believe you’ve been subjected to an unlawful stop, arrest, search or seizure, contact the South Florida criminal defense attorneys at Anidjar & Levine. Our lawyers have vast experience defending clients on criminal charges. We are also prepared to represent clients in actions against law enforcement alleging false arrest and related claims.
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