The Second DCA recently came out with an opinion that limits the extent law enforcement can search the personal belongings of a person detained pursuant to a Baker Act detention. In short, the Court held that once a person is handcuffed and in the back of a police vehicle, the search of that person’s wallet for officer safety and/or inventory is unreasonable. Since the touchstone of Fourth Amendment analysis is reasonableness, the search was illegal and the narcotics found in the wallet must be suppressed from introduction into evidence. The case is S.P. v. State, 2D21-631 (Fla. 2d DCA 2021).
Search Incident to Baker Act Detention: Facts of the Case
The facts are not entirely clear as they weren’t developed very well in the trial court. However, we do know that S.P. and her boyfriend were having issues and that S.P. had been drinking and was very intoxicated. Her boyfriend indicated to law enforcement that S.P. had a gun and was threatening to shoot herself.
Law enforcement encountered S.P. and made the determination that there was a substantial likelihood that without care or treatment that S.P. would cause serious harm to herself or to others in the near future as evidenced by her behavior. Fla. Stat. 394.463(1)(b)2.
The officer then handcuffed S.P., searched her person, and placed her in the back of his car. He found a gun in her purse and a wallet in her back pocket. Within the wallet, the officer found suspected cocaine which field tested positive for cocaine.
Holding of the Case
As indicated in the opening, the Court did not issue a bright-line rule indicating whether this type of search is always legal or illegal. It merely held, that based on the facts of this case, the search was unreasonable. So, this doesn’t give the legal community or law enforcement great guidelines upon which to base future behavior. However, it is important to look at the language used by the Court to discern some general principals.
“Again, absent a recognized exception, a law enforcement officer must ordinarily obtain a warrant before searching the personal effects of a person. See Riley v. California, 573 U.S. 373, 382 (2014) (“In the absence of a warrant, a search is reasonable only if it falls within a specific exception to the warrant requirement.”); Florida v. Jardines, 569 U.S. 1, 6 (2013) (“The Fourth Amendment ‘indicates with some precision the places and things encompassed by its protections’: persons, houses, papers, and effects.” (quotingOliver v. United States, 466 U.S. 170, 176 (1984))). The case law has recognized that officers engaged in a socalled “community caretaking” role (which the case at bar would seem to invoke) may conduct a limited search of persons and property when it is necessary to ensure safety. See State v. Brumelow, 289 So. 3d 955, 956 (Fla. 1st DCA 2019) (citing 14A Fla. Jur 2d Criminal Law—Procedure § 771 (2019); State v. Johnson, 208 So. 3d 843, 845 (Fla. 1st DCA 2017)); L.C., 23 So. 3d at 1219. The necessity of ensuring safety in these situations does not create an inchoate warrant to bypass every protection of the Fourth
Amendment. Accord Caniglia, 141 S. Ct. at 1600 (“But, this recognition that police officers perform many civic tasks in modern society was just that—a recognition that these tasks exist, and not an open-ended license to perform them anywhere.”). The safety search must be objectively reasonable under the facts of the case. And reasonableness, in these contexts, is typically measured in terms of the search’s intrusiveness and the circumstances’ necessity.
Thus, in A.B.S. v. State, 51 So. 3d 1181, 1182 (Fla. 2d DCA 2010), we reversed a juvenile’s adjudication for possession of a controlled substance because the officer who had taken the juvenile into custody had no need to unlock and unscrew the container found in the juvenile’s pocket. We held:Circumstances that allow a juvenile to be taken into custody under section 984.13 are not crimes; therefore, the search incident to arrest exception to the warrant requirement does not apply.Further, in this case the officer had no indication
that A.B.S. was in possession of either a weapon or contraband when he searched A.B.S. He admitted that he searched A.B.S. solely because it was his policy to search people before transporting them in his cruiser. . . . Because the search was conducted without a legal basis, the trial court erred in denying the motion to suppress.Id. (citation omitted).
Similarly, in Fields v. State, 105 So. 3d 1280, 1284 (Fla. 2d DCA 2013), we rejected the claim that a police officer could command a defendant to hand over a pill bottle in his pocket when it was clear the medical emergency that precipitated the officer’s interaction with the defendant was over. “[S]ince the reason for the feared medical emergency had been resolved,” we explained, “[Officer] Odom was not entitled to demand that Fields produce the pill bottle. Hence, Odom’s demand constituted an unreasonable and unconstitutional search . . . .” Id. (citing Rolling v. State, 695 So. 2d 278, 293 (Fla. 1997); Reed v. State, 944 So. 2d 1054, 1059 (Fla. 4th DCA 2006)).
So, too, here, Deputy Anderson’s pat-down search of S.P. was permissible in order to safely transport her to the receiving facility. See L.C., 23 So. 3d at 1219. And locating (and then sequestering) the gun in her possession was also warranted given the information the deputies had. But there was no need to search through S.P.’s wallet when the one weapon she was reported to have had already been seized, when she was already in handcuffs in the back of a sheriff’s patrol car, and when there was no objective basis to be further concerned for anyone’s safety. There was no articulable suspicion of criminal activity when Deputy Anderson went the proverbial “extra step” of looking through S.P.’s wallet. And, as we alluded to in White, there was no indication that her wallet could not have been seized and kept in the trunk of the patrol car (or any other place that was out of her reach) as she was being transported to a receiving facility. The deputy went a step too far under the Fourth Amendment when he opened the wallet and searched its contents.
It will be interesting to see how future courts interpret this holding. On its own terms, it’s very narrow and seems to only apply to Baker Act situations. A search incident to arrest has long been an exception to the warrant requirement and does not appear to be in danger of going away any time soon. However, in light of this case, there is an argument that a search incident to arrest does not include everything on the person. That it could be limited to locations that are necessary to search for officer safety. This is one to definitely watch.