I have spoken at several “Know Your Rights” events on what should people do at traffic stops. These events became more important when the Black Lives Matter movement started and people wanted to know their rights so they could act properly when stopped. I have two main rules for traffic stops (or any police encounters): 1-if the officer tells you to do something, do it (unless doing so will physically harm you), and 2-don’t try to educate the officer(s) on your rights while on the side of the road. When stopped by an officer, your primary concerns should be to cooperate, document the encounter, and seek the advice of an attorney if you feel your rights were violated.
In Florida, officers’ actions in traffic stops are governed by Florida Statute 901.151, which is the statute version of the United States Supreme Court Case Terry v. Ohio. Florida Statute 901.151 says:
(2) Whenever any law enforcement officer of this state encounters any person under circumstances which reasonably indicate that such person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a violation of the criminal laws of this state or the criminal ordinances of any municipality or county, the officer may temporarily detain such person for the purpose of ascertaining the identity of the person temporarily detained and the circumstances surrounding the person’s presence abroad which led the officer to believe that the person had committed, was committing, or was about to commit a criminal offense.
(3) No person shall be temporarily detained under the provisions of subsection (2) longer than is reasonably necessary to effect the purposes of that subsection. Such temporary detention shall not extend beyond the place where it was first effected or the immediate vicinity thereof.
(4) If at any time after the onset of the temporary detention authorized by subsection (2), probable cause for arrest of person shall appear, the person shall be arrested. If, after an inquiry into the circumstances which prompted the temporary detention, no probable cause for the arrest of the person shall appear, the person shall be released.
(5) Whenever any law enforcement officer authorized to detain temporarily any person under the provisions of subsection (2) has probable cause to believe that any person whom the officer has temporarily detained, or is about to detain temporarily, is armed with a dangerous weapon and therefore offers a threat to the safety of the officer or any other person, the officer may search such person so temporarily detained only to the extent necessary to disclose, and for the purpose of disclosing, the presence of such weapon. If such a search discloses such a weapon or any evidence of a criminal offense it may be seized.
(6) No evidence seized by a law enforcement officer in any search under this section shall be admissible against any person in any court of this state or political subdivision thereof unless the search which disclosed its existence was authorized by and conducted in compliance with the provisions of subsections (2)-(5).
So what does this really mean? I will give examples and further explanation of each section below.
Subsection 2 means an officer can stop you if he or she has reasonable suspicion to believe you committed a crime or are committing a crime. So if there is a suspect that looks like you or if your car fits the description of a car involved in a crime, the officer can legally stop you. If you have or are committing a traffic violation such as speeding, failing to use a turn signal, failing to turn on head lights, or if you have broken equipment on your car, the officer can legally stop the car. Once stopped, the officer can legally ask for your identity (usually he or she will ask for your driver’s license) and can ask questions to further investigate the reason for stopping you. Officers may or may not tell you the reason why you are being stopped, but the officer can ask questions to investigate the reason for the stop. You are required to identify yourself if you are legally stopped. Failure to identify yourself can result in your arrest for resisting arrest or obstruction of justice. See State v. Ramos, 598 So.2d 267 (Fla. 3rd DCA 1992).
Subsection 3 means an officer cannot hold you longer than reasonably necessary to investigate the reason for the stop. If the stop was based on a traffic violation, an officer cannot detain you longer then necessary to check your license, registration, insurance, and write the ticket for the violation. Some officers try to delay this process in order to wait for a canine to conduct a free air sniff search of the car for drugs. As long as the drug dog arrives in the amount of time necessary for the officer to investigate and write the ticket, a search by the drug dog will be valid. Generally, courts have decided that a stop longer than 20 minutes for a traffic violation is unreasonable. See Williams v. State, 869 So.2d 750 (Fla. 5th DCA 2004). Also, unless you are placed under arrest, you cannot be forced to leave the location of the stop and go with the police.
Subsection 4 is pretty clear. It simply means that you will either be placed under arrest or you will be free to leave once the investigation is done. The statute does not specifically state it, but in Florida, an officer can legally detain a passenger in the car that is legally stopped. See R.L.L. v. State, 466 So.2d 1230 (Fla. 2d DCA 1985). If the passenger leaves the scene of the traffic stop, he or she can be arrested for obstruction or resisting arrest. This is in direct contradiction with established federal case law but so far Florida courts are ignoring the federal law on this issue. If in doubt, stay and argue the point later when you’re still alive and out of jail.
Subsection 5 means an officer and search for weapons on your body or in your arms reach if you are lawfully detained. This does not mean an officer can force a person to open his or her pockets, bags, purses, etc. The officer can do a pat down search to see if he or she feels any weapons. No other search is legally permitted unless an investigation gives the officer probable cause to conduct a search.
Subsection 6 means any evidence obtained based on an illegal search cannot be used against you in court. If you are given a ticket, arrested, or physically harmed following a violation of any of the provisions of this law, seek the advice of an attorney. Most importantly, do whatever is necessary to stay alive and allow a lawyer to fight for your rights after you’ve made it home safely.