If there are drugs in your car, a busted taillight can lead to five years behind bars. That’s the crux of the Fourth District Court of Appeals’ recent decision in Rutledge v. State.
Eddie Rutledge was arrested and charged with possession of a concealed firearm and possession of marijuana in excess of twenty grams. A trial ensued, during which a Palm Beach County Sheriff’s deputy testified that the arrest came after the deputy heard from a confidential informant that a drug deal would happen at a gas station between 10:30 pm and 11:30 pm that night. The informant, who had not previously worked with the deputy, further warned that one of the people involved in the deal may be carrying a gun.
The deputy and other officers stopped a vehicle driven by Rutledge and matching the description given by the informant at the gas station at about 11:00 pm that night, after noticing that the car was missing a taillight and its windows were very darkly tinted. Smelling marijuana from inside the car and noticing a bulge in Rutledge’s pocket consistent with carrying a gun, the officers removed him from the vehicle and searched it. Rutledge admitted that he was carrying a gun and the officers found 230 grams of marijuana in his pants as well as another weapon in the car.
The trial judge rejected Rutledge’s motion to suppress the evidence, finding that the busted taillight justified the traffic stop. A jury convicted Rutledge on both charges and he was sentenced to five years in jail on each charge.
On appeal, Rutledge argued that the trial court erred in a hearing on his suppression motion by improperly allowing the prosecution to present hearsay evidence. Specifically, the Sheriff’s deputy testified as to what he was told by the confidential informant, rather than having the informant himself testify. This, according to Rutledge, denied him the right to cross-examine the informant.
The Fourth District upheld the conviction on appeal, finding that the traffic stop was justified by the broken taillight and did not require the information provided by the informant.
“A fundamental error is error that reaches down into the validity of the trial itself to the extent that a verdict of guilty could not have been obtained without the assistance of the alleged error,” the Court explained, citing the state supreme court’s 2012 decision in Tanzi v. State. Here, the trial court did not rely on information from the informant to justify the stop, according to the Fourth District. As a result, it did not commit fundamental error requiring the conviction to be overturned.
Issues concerning traffic stops and related searches are often at the center of a criminal drug prosecution and can mean the difference between conviction and acquittal. It is vital that a person charged with a drug crime seek the counsel of an experienced attorney in order to consider all of these issues and mount a vigorous defense. If you have been charged with a crime in Florida, contact the South Florida criminal attorneys at Anidjar & Levine. With offices in Ft. Lauderdale, we are experienced, professional lawyers, serving clients throughout the region, including in Hialeah, Pompano Beach and Boca Raton.
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