Florida Supreme Court clarifies when someone is in police custody

 

Miami-Herald

Florida’s high court said a Miami youth was not free to go when narcotics officers approached him at a park. The juvenile was rolling a marijuana cigarette.

Handcuffs, Miranda warnings, the back seat of a police car.

They’re all pretty good signs that someone has been “seized” by a police officer.

But what about flashing blue lights? A police car blocking someone’s path? Are they signs, too?

In a decision that settles a conflict between different appeals courts in Florida and helps solve the question of what constitutes a police stop, the Florida Supreme Court said Thursday that a youthful drug suspect was, indeed, “seized” when armed officers in a police car with flashing lights confronted him near an elementary school.

MIAMI-DADE ARREST

The case involves a juvenile, identified only as G.M., who was arrested in a Miami-Dade park with a “blunt” — a hollowed-out cigar containing marijuana. The youth, whose age is not specified, had been sitting in a Lexus rolling the marijuana cigarette when armed police officers, driving a car with flashing lights, approached.

“It strains the bounds of reason to conclude that under these circumstances, a reasonable person would believe that he or she was free to end the encounter with police and simply leave,” the opinion states.

G.M.’s conviction on drug possession charges was upheld by the high court, which said G.M. didn’t know he was “seized” by police; if he had known, justices said, he probably would have tried to dispose of his marijuana sooner. Still, the opinion states clearly that the youth was not free to leave — even if he didn’t know it at the time.

In a short statement to The Miami Herald, Ryan Wiggins, a spokesman for Attorney General Bill McCollum, said “the court affirmed our position and upheld the lower court’s rulings that the police encounter did not violate the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights.”

Assistant Public Defender Howard K. Blumberg, who argued the case before the high court, said he was disappointed G.M. did not prevail, but was pleased the court agreed with his contention that citizens are not free to simply walk away after being stopped by armed officers with their lights flashing.

“Under the totality of circumstances, any reasonable person who sees a police car pulled up behind him — with the lights on — would not feel they are free to leave,” Blumberg said.

The opinion was written by Justice R. Fred Lewis and signed by justices Charles T. Canady, Ricky Polston, Jorge Labarga and James E.C. Perry. Chief Justice Peggy A. Quince and Justice Barbara J. Pariente concurred in part and dissented in part.

SITTING IN CAR

According to the 25-page opinion, G.M. had been sitting in the car — and occasionally getting out to talk to others — on Aug. 8, 2006. Two Miami-Dade police undercover narcotics officers were watching the Lexus, and became suspicious because the youths were “not engaged in what the officers considered `traditional’ park activities.”

“This caused the officers to activate the emergency lights of the unmarked vehicle and drive across the street into the park to approach the group,” Lewis wrote.

At issue in G.M.’s hearing was whether the two officers acted lawfully when they seized the drug. G.M.’s attorney argued the officers had not observed any illegal activity that afternoon and had no reason to stop the kids.

A juvenile court judge declared the seizure proper, and the Third District Court of Appeal in Miami agreed.

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