Florida Supreme Court rules that suspects can be forced from their vehicles while drug-sniffing dogs search for evidence

 May 28, 2024

The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that law enforcement officers may force people from their cars during traffic stops when police dogs conduct searches, WINK News reported. This law seems to contradict the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The state's high court issued the 5-1 ruling Thursday. The decision specifically addresses stops where a K-9 unit is involved in the investigation process.

While drivers would still have a right to refuse a search in general, the presence of a K-9 means that occupants of a vehicle can be commanded to vacate. The state believes this is for the safety of the officers involved.

“Ultimately, when you’re asking for a search, or you’re calling a canine in, if you do have something in the vehicle, or you do have something to hide, that really heightens the possibility of somebody being hurt, or somebody making a very poor decision on driving away using a firearm using a weapon," Fort Myers attorney Scot Goldberg explained. Failing to comply would result in additional charges.

Search and Seizure

Opponents of the decision believe this is a violation of the Constitution’s prohibition against "unreasonable" search and seizure on the part of the government. The Florida Supreme Court’s ruling found no such conflict.

"We hold that binding Fourth Amendment precedent permits a K-9 officer arriving midway through a lawful traffic stop to command the driver to exit the vehicle for officer safety before conducting a lawful vehicle sweep," the March 23 ruling states, according to Florida Bar News. The presence of a police dog an accompanying officers changes the math for the court.

Justice Renatha Francis's majority opinion noted that the law is "well-settled that once a driver has been lawfully stopped for a traffic violation," law enforcement can indeed order a person out of the vehicle "officer safety reasons" that don't violate their Constitutional rights. The Supreme Court contradicted a lower court's ruling on the issue based on precedent.

"The issue here is whether this well-settled rule applies to a K-9 officer arriving midway through a lawful traffic stop to perform a dog sniff sweep of a vehicle’s exterior. The Second District Court of Appeal said ‘no,’ certifying conflict with the Fifth District Court of Appeal in State v. Benjamin, 229 So. 3d 817, 825 (Fla. 2d DCA 2022)," the opinion added.

Justice Jorge Labarga wrote the dissenting opinion, concluding that "whether a law enforcement exit order is a constitutional seizure depends on the reasonableness of the order given its unique circumstances" in his reading of precedent. "Reasonableness ‘depends on a balance between the public interest and the individual’s right to personal security free from arbitrary interference by law officers."

The Inciting Case

The high court's decision came from a 2018 case involving a traffic stop initiated by Tampa police against Joshua Creller. At the behest of a narcotics officer who allegedly witnessed Creller commit a traffic violation, a uniformed officer pulled him over.

Officers asked Creller if they could search his car, and he declined. While the officers were writing out his citation for the traffic violation, a K-9 officer came on the scene and demanded Creller get out.

It was then that the police dog tracked the scent of narcotics, and Creller was forcibly removed from his vehicle. He was also in possession of an unlawful firearm hidden behind his leg, which became apparent when he exited the vehicle.

A lower court ruled that Creller's Fourth Amendment rights were violated and reversed his conviction. However, the Florida Supreme Court noted that other precedents upheld the state's application of the law and reversed the lower court's decision.

It seems unreasonable that suspects must leave their vehicles to allow the dogs to conduct a search that would otherwise be unconstitutional in most cases. While these searches sometimes bear fruit and protect the public, the implications are frightening.

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