4/7/2016Florida Court Gives Police Right To Detain Innocent Passengers
Florida Court of Appeal overturns previous ruling to give police full authority to detain vehicle passengers suspected of no wrongdoing.
Florida's Supreme Court may soon resolve the question of whether police may detain a vehicle's passenger simply because the driver committed a minor traffic infraction. On Friday, the state's Fifth District Court of Appeal reversed a prior decision and certified conflict with appellate decisions in other districts, packaging the ruling for the high court's review.
In this case, Edwin Aguiar was riding in the front seat of a car that had a burned out brake light. A Daytona Beach police officer also noticed the driver forgot to buckle up, so he activated his emergency lights. The driver pulled over in a restaurant parking lot, and Aguiar hopped out. The officer yelled at Aguiar to get back in the car.
During the stop, the officer found Aguiar had a small bag of cocaine, for which he was placed under arrest. At trial, Osceola County Circuit Court Judge A. James Craner cited the Court of Appeal's 1999 Wilson v. Florida decision that forced him to dismiss the charges against Aguiar. That ruling, in turn, cited the dissenting opinion of US Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens in a similar federal case.
"The Constitution should not be read to permit law enforcement officers to order innocent passengers about simply because they have the misfortune to be seated in a car whose driver has committed a minor traffic offense," Stevens wrote.
Friday's decision by the unanimous ten-judge Court of Appeal disagreed with the 1999 ruling on the principle that the police officer's safety is always the most important concern.
"When an officer approaches any vehicle stopped for a traffic infraction, the officer needs to be on vigilant alert, ready to react to violence that could come from any occupant inside the vehicle," the appellate court ruled. "A departing passenger is a distraction that divides the officer's focus and thereby increases the risk of harm to the officer. As that passenger moves further from the vehicle, it becomes impossible for the officer to watch the departing passenger and the remaining occupants."
The court insisted that the intrusion on the freedom of a passenger suspected of no wrong doing is "minimal." The court added that the passenger must not leave the vehicle since he would have no way of knowing whether he was the target of the traffic stop.
A copy of the decision is available in a 110k PDF file at the source link below.