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Can Police Officers Detain Passengers During a Traffic Stop in Florida?

No one disputes that Florida law enforcement officials have the authority to pull over drivers who have committed traffic infractions such as speeding, running a stop sign or driving with a faulty tail light. However, if there are any passengers in a car pulled over for a traffic offense, does a police officer have the right to hold them even if they played no direct part in the offense? According to a recent ruling issued by the Florida Supreme Court, the answer is yes--to a certain degree.
The Florida Supreme Court tackled this issue in Presley v. Florida. Gregory Presley had been a passenger in a vehicle that was pulled over for running a stop sign with a broken tail light. The officer who was conducting the (valid) traffic stop began asking Presley questions, including his name, where he was going and if he'd been drinking. Presley became upset with the question about his drinking, prompting the police officer to perform a record check that showed Presley was currently forbidden to drink while on probation. Presley was arrested for this violation. At trial however, he argued that the evidence obtained during the traffic stop, which directly lead to his arrest for violating the terms of his probation, should be suppressed as he was illegally detained. The appellate court was divided on the question, but the Florida Supreme Court came through with a definitive answer: the police officer's valid safety concerns outweighed Presley's rights as a passenger, making the temporary detention legal.
To be clear, the Florida Supreme Court did not give law enforcement carte blanche to detain passengers without suspected wrongdoing indefinitely. Specifically, the Court concluded that a passenger's Fourth Amendment rights are not violated if police detain them during the "reasonable duration" of a valid traffic stop. The Court noted that a lawful traffic stop already necessarily interrupts the passenger's movement, and it is the driver's valid detention that is the direct cause of this. Moreover, holding passengers during the limited amount of time taken to conduct a traffic stop helps law enforcement officials perform their job safety, according to Chief Justice Jorge Labarga. In Presley's case, the fact that the police officer ran a background check on him--which revealed his probationary status and the limitations placed on his alcohol consumption--was legal and legitimate in this context as well.
Still, other Justices had reservations about the precedent that the Court was setting. Justice Barbara J. Pariente ultimately agreed that passenger detentions during traffic stops were legal according to U.S. Supreme Court precedent. However, she noted that she felt the pretext upon which Presley--a minority--was interrogated within his own neighborhood was thin.
Whatever the specifics in Presley's case, however, the Florida Supreme Court's ruling establishes a clear precedent that all Floridians should be aware of: when you are the passenger in a car stopped for any traffic violation--no matter how minor--you may legally be detained for a period of time, interrogated and perhaps ultimately arrested without having your constitutional rights violated.
It is important to remember that you are under no obligation to speak with law enforcement without the benefit of legal counsel.  If you feel that you have been unfairly detained or interrogated by Florida law enforcement, you should seek the advice of a Florida crime lawyer immediately.

Categories: Criminal Defense
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