Generally, police officers must have a warrant in order to search a home or car. There are a number of exceptions to this rule, however, including a rather broad one in place under circumstances where officers can establish “probable cause.” In State v. McIntosh, Florida’s Fifth District Court of Appeals explains the “automobile exception” to the warrant requirement.
Ronald McIntosh was arrested on suspicion of aggravated assault with a firearm stemming from an incident in which his girlfriend called 911 and said McIntosh was threatening her with a weapon. When two officers arrived at her residence, they found McIntosh talking with his girlfriend calmly. They placed him in handcuffs while the girlfriend made a sworn statement to an officer saying that McIntosh had threatened her while carrying a gun. She also said that he later put the weapon in his car, but she was unclear where exactly he had stashed. The officers then arrested McIntosh and placed him in a squad car while they searched his vehicle. They found the weapon in the trunk of the car.
McIntosh had a previous criminal record and as a result was charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and improper exhibition of a firearm. A trial court later granted his motion to suppress the evidence found in his car, finding that the officers did not have probable cause to search it and therefore could not do so without a warrant.
The Fifth District reversed the decision on appeal, finding probable cause to arrest McIntosh and to search his car pursuant to the automobile exception. The court said it could not find any evidence to support the trial judge’s finding that the girlfriend did not actually see McIntosh put the gun in the car. Rather, according to the court, she stated multiple times that she saw him place the gun in his vehicle, but was simply not sure exactly where he stashed it in the car. This was sufficient grounds for the arrest, according to the court.
“Furthermore, the automobile exception to the warrant requirement, irrespective of an arrest, permits a warrantless search supported by probable cause ‘based on the inherent mobility of vehicles, as well as the reduced expectation of privacy in a vehicle,’” the court additionally explained, citing the Florida Supreme Court’s 2011 decision in Harris v. State. So while the girlfriend’s statement gave the cops probable cause to arrest McIntosh, the court said the later search was not one conducted incident to arrest. Instead the officers had independent probable cause to search the car based on the statement and justified under the automobile exception to the general rule requiring a warrant in order to conduct a search.
Search and seizure issues like this often arise in criminal cases and can mean the difference between conviction and acquittal. If you have been charged with a crime in Florida, contact the South Florida criminal attorneys at Anidjar & Levine. We serve clients throughout the region, including in Ft. Lauderdale, Pompano Beach and Boca Raton.
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