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If the police mistakenly find contraband in my car, will the case be dismissed?


It should be, as it stands right now, but the law may soon change. Florida police officers pull motorists over every day based on mistakes of law. As a Jacksonville criminal lawyer,I represent people every day who are the victims of police 'mistakes of law'. In the case of Damian Leslie v. Florida, the police pulled over Mr. Leslie because he did not have a center rearview mirror. The cop believed this to be a traffic violation; it was not. When Leslie pulled over, the cop observed three baggies of marijuana in his lap while he was sitting in his vehicle. The cop then searched the car further and found some cocaine.

Leslie moved to suppress the evidence found in his car and the trial court denied the motion (why do trial courts so often refuse to acknowledge the current state of the law, I wonder?). Leslie wisely appealed to a higher court and, sure enough, the Florida District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court, and re-stated what has been the law in Florida for some time - "An officer's mistake of law as to what constitutes a traffic violation cannot provide reasonable suspicion justifying a traffic stop". Hilton v. State, (citation omitted); State v. Wimberly, (citation omitted)..." This seems obvious, right?

The United States Supreme Court is currently considering whether or not to allow traffic stop searches based on a cop's mistake of law. In Heien v. North Carolina, a sheriff pulled a car over because it had a broken taillight. Unbeknownst to the sheriff, North Carolina allows a car to have only one working taillight; as such, the car was pulled over mistakenly. After some conversation, the sheriff asked for permission to search the vehicle. Mr. Heien agreed and the sheriff found 54.2 grams of cocaine in the car. Heien was indicted for cocaine trafficing and promptly filed a motion to suppress the evidence discovered during the search of the vehicle; the trial court (of course) denied the motion. The North Carolina Court of Appeals reversed the trial court (just like in Leslie v. Florida) because, as we now know, the police cannot base reasonable suspicion on an illegal or mistaken traffic stop.

But wait! The North Carolina Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and said that when the officer's mistake of law is 'reasonable' , it may give rise to the 'reasonable suspicion' required for a warrantless search of a vehicle under the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. Fortunately, a North Carolina Court of Appeals judge dissented (disagreed), stating that this ruling created "fundamental unfairness" because it held citizens to a traditional rule that "ignorance of the law is no excuse" while allowing the police to be ignorant of the law and get away with it.

Lesson Learned:

Until the U.S. Supreme Court decides this issue once and for all, it's still the law in Florida that a mistake in law cannot justify a vehicle stop and anything seized by the police during that stop should be thrown out (suppressed) by the court. However, the Supreme Court may just carve out an exception and allow the police, when acting in 'good faith' to pull over and search vehicles based on mistakes in law if the mistake was a reasonable one. But who will decide what police mistakes are 'reasonable' and which ones are not? The trial courts, who seem to deny defendant's suppression motions as a matter of course. Hopefully, the Supreme Court will do the right thing and hold the police to the same standards as they do its citizens. Stay tuned. I will update this post as soon as the Supreme Court decides.

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