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Law Enforcement Must Have Probable Cause to Search Your Vehicle in Florida

Have you been charged with a crime based on evidence that was secured by law enforcement in a search of your vehicle conducted at a traffic stop?  If the law enforcement officers did not have reasonable suspicion to make the traffic stop, and probable cause to justify the search your vehicle, then the search may have been illegal.  Evidence secured by law enforcement officers during an illegal search can be suppressed, which can significantly benefit your criminal defense arguments.

Demonstrating that a traffic stop search of your vehicle was illegal can spell the difference between a successful criminal defense and a failed one.  If you’ve been charged with a crime, you’ll want to secure the guidance of an experienced Florida criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

In Florida, law enforcement officers must:

  • Establish reasonable suspicion to make a traffic stop, and
  • Establish probable cause to search your vehicle at a traffic stop.

Let’s take a closer look.

Reasonable Suspicion for a Traffic Stop

In order to make a traffic stop of your vehicle, Florida law requires that law enforcement establish that they have reasonable suspicion to believe that you have engaged in some illegal activity (traffic violations or commission of any other crime).  For example, if you drive through a red light, a Florida law enforcement officer is entitled to make a traffic stop.  Similarly, if you are driving erratically, a law enforcement officer may reasonably suspect that you are driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol and may initiate a traffic stop.

Reasonable suspicion is a lower standard than probable cause.  It has often been described as a “hunch” based on specific facts that can be reasonably articulated.  For example, the erratic manner in which a driver is maneuvering on the road may give a police officer a “hunch” that the driver is driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol — the officer must be able to articulate specific facts to justify this hunch, however, such as the driver’s inability to stay in their lane for an extended period of time.

Probable Cause for a Vehicle Search

If a Florida law enforcement officer does not have a warrant, he or she may still search your vehicle after making a traffic stop.  Warrantless vehicle searches are legal in Florida, so long as probable cause has been established.

Probable cause is a higher standard than reasonable suspicion.  In Florida, you can show that a law enforcement officer failed to establish the requisite probable cause to perform a valid search of the vehicle if you can show that a reasonable person in the same circumstances would believe that there was evidence of a crime in the vehicle such that the search was justified.

During a traffic stop, certain objective factors may establish probable cause and justify a search of the vehicle.  In Florida, for example, the odor of marijuana is enough to establish probable cause.  When performing a search on the basis of the odor of marijuana, law enforcement may find other illegal contraband, such as weapons.  If you can show that there was no marijuana in the vehicle, however, and that there was no odor to establish probable cause, then you may be able to suppress evidence of illegal contraband secured by law enforcement officers during their search of the vehicle.

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