Florida Court Hits Brakes on Backpack Search in Drug Case

Federal and state laws substantially limit the circumstances in which police officers can search you or your stuff without a warrant. Those limits often come into play in Florida drug crime cases, in which debates over how the drugs in question were uncovered by the police can make or break a case. A recent decision from Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal sheds some light on how judges look at search and seizure questions.A defendant was charged with possession of marijuana, oxycodone, and drug paraphernalia following an incident in which Miami police officers stopped him in an area known as a haven for illegal dirt bike driving. State and local laws generally ban people from riding motorized dirt bikes on public streets. A pair of police officers monitoring the area heard the roar of a dirt bike and saw the defendant driving in their direction. The bike did not have headlights, taillights, turn signals, or a license plate. The officers followed in their patrol car. They activated their lights and siren after the defendant ran a red light. He tried to speed away but fell off the bike.

The cops apprehended the defendant and handcuffed him. They also searched his backpack after he said he had proof that he owned the bike in the front compartment of the bag. Although the defendant specifically asked the officers not to look in the main compartment, they did so after smelling marijuana. They found marijuana, oxycodone, and drug paraphernalia. The defendant eventually entered a guilty plea after a judge refused to exclude the backpack evidence from the case against him.

On appeal, the Third District agreed with the defendant that the officers didn’t have the legal authority to search the main compartment of his backpack. The court explained that cops generally need to have a warrant to conduct a search. There are a number of exceptions to this rule, however, including for searches that occur incident to an arrest. Those searches are permitted in order for police to ensure that the person doesn’t have a weapon and is not able to destroy any evidence. In this case, however, the court said the bag wasn’t within the defendant’s reach. That’s because he was handcuffed and sitting against a fence while the bag was on the hood of a police car some five feet away.

“Even if [he] was a combination of an acrobat Houdini we do not see how [he] could have gained access to the backpack following his arrest,” the Third District said. The court reversed the conviction and remanded the case back to the trial judge.

If you or a loved one has been charged with a crime in Florida, it is essential that you seek the advice and counsel of an experienced attorney. Tampa drug crime lawyer Will Hanlon is a seasoned attorney who fights aggressively on behalf of clients charged with a wide range of offenses Call our offices at (813) 228-7095 or contact us online to speak with Mr. Hanlon about your case.

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