In a recent case out of the First District Court of Appeal, the court examined whether a bag of cocaine found in the defendant’s pocket was discovered pursuant to a lawful search.

Mr. Griffin was standing in a driveway in a high-crime area with his hand in his pocket.  With no reason to suspect criminal activity, an officer approached him and demanded Griffin remove his hand from his pocket.  Mr. Griffin declined to remove his hand from his pocket and refused to consent to a search.  The officer then conducted a weapons pat-down, during which he located a “squishy bag” that he was “almost certain” was cocaine.  The trial court denied Griffin’s motion to suppress, and he appealed.

The appellate court discussed the three types of police-citizen encounters:  (1) consensual encounter, (2) investigatory stop, and (3) physical arrest.  A police officer needs no reason – no level of suspicion – to initiate a consensual encounter with a citizen.  However, a citizen can choose to engage, or ignore, a police officer during a citizen encounter.  In other words, a citizen can tell an officer to “pound sand” during a true citizen encounter.  In order to conduct an investigatory stop, an officer must have a reasonable articulable suspicion that a person has committed, is committing or is about to commit a crime.  A person is not free to terminate an investigatory stop with an officer.  During an investigatory stop, an officer may pat the person down to check for weapons if the officer has a reasonable belief that the person detained is armed.

The appellate court found that “the police here – at every turn – lacked justification for their actions.”  Simply being present in a high-crime area does not give rise to a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot.  “Fourth Amendment constitutional protections do not stop at the entryway to selected neighborhoods.”  Nor are hands in pockets synonymous with reasonable suspicion of illegality.

After finding that the detention of Mr. Griffin itself was illegal, the court went on to discuss the illegality of the pat-down search for weapons.  If an officer seizes contraband during a pat-down search pursuant to the “plain-feel” doctrine, the incriminating nature of the contraband must be “immediately apparent.”  An officer may not squeeze or manipulate the contents of a pocket in order to determine the incriminating nature of the item(s) therein.

Ultimately, the appellate court determined Griffin’s motion to suppress should have been granted, and his judgment and sentence were reversed. 

If you would like to read the entire opinion, please click here