On January 30, 2012, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida decided United States of America v. Hanna, et al., 2012 US Dist. LEXIS 11385 (S.D.Fla. 2012). In that case, law enforcement officers installed a GPS tracking device without a warrant on a vehicle located in a public parking lot during the investigation of several armed robberies. The officers surveilled certain suspects who were believed to be planning their next robbery, and the GPS tracking device was instrumental in the arrests of the defendants for armed robbery.
The defendants moved to suppress all physical evidence discovered at the time of their arrests based upon the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in the United States v. Jones, 565 U.S. _____ (2012), which held that the government’s installation of a GPS tracking device on a vehicle and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements without a valid warrant constitutes a “search.” However, although the defendants had used the vehicle at times during robberies, the defendants never owned the vehicle on which a GPS tracking device was placed, so the court held that the defendants lacked standing to challenge a trespass upon private property because they did not own the vehicle. The eleventh circuit reasoned that one must have an expectation of privacy as to the particular vehicle tracked, either from an ownership or possessory interest. One must either possess the vehicle when the tracker is installed, which did not occur here, or at least one must be inside the vehicle at the time the tracker is being used to monitor the vehicle.
On February 21, 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals of the Eleventh Circuit decided United States of America v. Wilbur, 2012 US App. LEXIS 3361 (11th Cir. 2012). In that case, a deputy stopped Wilbur’s vehicle because it had “extremely dark tinted windows.” After the stop, Wilbur appeared to be nervous and overly apologetic about the windows. The deputy determined that the windows were too dark and requested Wilbur’s driver’s license in order to prepare a warning citation. Florida Statute § 316.2953 states that a person is authorized to operate a motor vehicle on any public highway with sunscreening material on the windows which has “a total solar reflectance of visible light of not more than 25% as measured on the non-film side and a light transmittance of at least 28% in the visible light range.”
A K-9 unit was summoned to the scene of the traffic stop, after another officer recognized Wilbur as a drug dealer. A K-9 unit arrived at the scene within 10 to 15 minutes, and the drug dog then alerted to the presence of drugs in Wilbur’s vehicle and a warrantless search of the vehicle revealed crack cocaine in a prescription bottle in the center console of the vehicle.
Wilbur argued that the crack cocaine should be suppressed because the officers prolonged the stop unreasonably to allow for the K-9 unit to arrive. The District Court denied Wilbur’s motion to suppress, and on appeal, the eleventh circuit held that the evidence establish that there was not an unreasonable delay in the traffic stop because the K-9 unit arrived within 10 to 15 minutes while the deputy was still completing a background search and writing the citation and Wilbur’s constitutional rights were not violated.
On February 23, 2012, the Florida Supreme Court decided State of Florida v. Michelle Bowers, 2012 Fla. LEXIS 429 (Fla. 2012). The issue presented was whether an officer who conducted a DUI investigation after a traffic stop, but who was not present during the initial stop, could testify regarding the basis of the traffic stop during a suppression hearing. The fellow officer rule provides that if an officer relies on a chain of evidence to formulate the existence of probable cause for an arrest or a search and seizure, the rule does not require the officer to possess personal knowledge of each link of the chain of information if the collective knowledge of all of the officers support a finding of probable cause.
In Bowers, a driver was arrested and charged with misdemeanor offenses of possessing marijuana and driving under the influence after a traffic stop. The driver filed a motion to suppress all evidence obtained during the search, claiming that the traffic stop was illegal because it was not based upon probable cause that a traffic infraction had been committed. The officer did not appear for the evidentiary hearing on the driver’s motion to suppress, and the State called a second officer to testify because the second officer had performed the DUI investigation and subsequent arrest, even though that officer was not present at the scene during the initial stop. The trial court granted the driver’s motion to suppress even though the State contended that the second officer’s testimony was admissible under the fellow officer rule. On appeal, the Florida Supreme Court held that the fellow officer rule could not be used as an evidentiary tool to circumvent otherwise inadmissible hearsay testimony, and it has never applied the fellow officer rule to allow an officer who had no first hand knowledge of the reasons for a traffic stop to testify regarding what the initial officer told him in order to establish the validity of the traffic stop. The Florida Supreme Court reasoned in Bowers that it recognized the need for efficient, practical law enforcement while still ensuring the full protection of a defendant’s constitutional rights.
On January 30, 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit decided Terrell, et al. v. Smith, et al., 2012 US App. LEXIS 1689 (11th Cir. 2012). In that case, police officers of the City of Palm Bay, Florida Police Department stopped a suspect’s vehicle because the car had been driven down a street without headlights. When the suspect exited the car, he jumped back into the car and started to drive away as a police officer placed himself in the open door of the car. As the suspect was trying to escape, the police officer ran alongside the car, repeatedly warning the suspect to stop the car. At one point, the police officer was struck by the door and frame of the car. After multiple warnings to stop the car, the police officer fired two shots, killing the suspect.
The issue in that case was whether the police officer was entitled to qualified immunity, and the eleventh circuit reversed the denial of qualified immunity by the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida and held that the police officer was entitled to qualified immunity because the use of deadly force was reasonable under the circumstances. The eleventh circuit also held that the initial stop was justified under Florida law because the suspect was driving at night without lit headlights, and the officer was not required to retreat or abandon his efforts simply because a fleeing felon was non-compliant. The court wrote: “[w]e have…consistently upheld an officer’s use of force and granted qualified immunity in cases where the decedent used or threatened to use his car as a weapon to endanger officers or civilians immediately preceding the officer’s use of deadly force.” The court noted that even if in hindsight the facts showed that the police officer could have escaped unharmed, an objectively reasonable law enforcement officer could well have perceived that the moving vehicle was being used as a deadly weapon, especially after the driver had been repeatedly ordered to stop.