Anyone who’s ever watched an episode of Law and Order has probably heard the term “reasonable suspicion.” But what does it actually mean in a Florida criminal drug case? The Fourth District Court of Appeal explains in Smith v. State.
Anthony Smith was charged on counts of cocaine and marijuana possession. On the night in question, Smith was sitting in an SUV parked in a vacant lot just off a residential street in Broward County. The car was parked legally and all of the interior and exterior lights were off. A County Sheriff’s deputy patrolling the neighborhood noticed the SUV at about 2:30 a.m. The deputy testified that he was suspicious of the vehicle because all of the lights were off, despite the fact that someone was clearly in it. He parked his police cruiser “almost catty corner,” activated his overhead emergency lights and used a spotlight to illuminate the SUV.
The deputy then got out of his car and approached Smith’s vehicle, noticing the smell of marijuana when he neared the vehicle. The deputy asked Smith to show his driver’s license and, while talking to Smith, noticed a half smoked joint in the car’s ashtray. The deputy arrested Smith. During a search incident to the arrest, he found a bag of cocaine and a small bag of marijuana.
Prior to trial, Smith filed a motion to suppress the evidence (the bags), arguing that it was obtained as the result of an unlawful seizure. The trial court denied the motion and, after Smith plead no contest, sentenced him to just over 33 months in prison.
On appeal, the Fourth District reversed the decision. According to the court, the admissibility of the evidence depended on whether Smith was “seized” before the officer approached his SUV and smelled the marijuana. A police officer must have a well-founded suspicion of criminal activity before stopping or detaining (“seizing”) a citizen, the court explained, citing the Florida Supreme Court’s decision in Popple v. State. In order to determine whether an encounter is simply consensual – meaning that the citizen can leave at any time – or constitutes a seizure, “courts review whether, under the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable person would feel free to disregard the police and go about his business,” the court stated.
In this case, given that Smith was legally parked on a residential street and did not indicate that he needed police assistance, “no reasonable person would have felt free to drive away after an officer activated his emergency lights and used a spotlight to illuminate the person’s parked vehicle.” This seizure occurred before the deputy smelled marijuana coming from Smith’s car and therefore was not supported by reasonable suspicion. As a result, the court reversed the trial court’s ruling and remanded the case, instructing the trial court to vacate Smith’s convictions.
If you are facing a drug possession charge in Florida, you should seek the advice of a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney who will advocate for your rights and interests. The South Florida criminal defense attorneys at Anidjar & Levine have years of experience handling drug possession cases and will work to develop an effective legal defense to get your charges dismissed or reduced.
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