Are you wondering about your rights during a traffic stop in the Florida Keys? The team at Reed Palacios Law is here to answer your questions and defend you if the police have violated those rights. We can help clarify what happened, and what steps you can take next. Contact Reed Palacios Law today for a free initial consultation to discuss your case and learn more about how we can support you.

Before we can answer the question, “When can the police pull me over in Key West?”, we must define a few key terms.

Reasonable suspicion is a legal standard that governs police authority to temporarily stop and investigate someone when they believe a crime might be occurring. Reasonable suspicion is a lower standard than probable cause and justifies stopping or investigating circumstances that any reasonable person would suspect a crime is being committed, has been committed or is about to be committed. Reasonable suspicion is often seen as an objective standard requiring courts to ask whether there is an objectively justifiable suspicion that justifies stopping and often searching a person thought to be involved in a crime.

Neither a gut feeling nor a hunch is enough to establish reasonable suspicion. The officer’s belief or suspicion must be based on clear facts or circumstances. For example, if a driver is weaving in the lane and driving well under the speed limit, police might have reasonable suspicion that the driver is intoxicated. Judges in Florida have defined what level of weaving (how many times over the middle line) can create reasonable suspicion and therefore a legal stop.

While a person weaving in and out of the lane, or traveling well above or below the speed limit may lead to reasonable suspicion justifying a stop, remember, this does not create a valid reason to search a person or their vehicle! To search the vehicle or anyone in the vehicle, the police need to establish probable cause – a higher standard of proof. The police therefore utilize the reasonable suspicion standard to investigate the individual driving the car. The investigation can yield further information like the smell of alcohol, slurred speech or glassy eyes. This information can then lead to probable cause for search or arrest.

Probable cause, the higher standard, exists when there is a reasonable basis for believing that a crime may have been committed or when evidence of a crime is present. Essentially, while reasonable suspicion is the belief that a crime might have occurred, probable cause is the belief that a crime has actually occurred or is occurring at that time.

The existence of probable cause allows police to either search someone, their property, or, depending on the circumstances, to arrest an individual. In the case of traffic stops, probable cause can arise at various times in the course of the stop. It could take place when the officer is following the driver, and the driver swerves, throws an alcohol bottle out the window and can be seen without a seatbelt. In this case, the officer would have probable cause for possession of an open container, littering, no seatbelt, and other traffic infractions right off the bat. The officer, however, would not have probable cause for a driving under the influence until further investigation is conducted after he stops the vehicle. At that point, he would use field sobriety tests to establish probable cause for the DUI. Probable cause can arise in different stages for different offenses throughout the traffic stop. Even if the officer did not conduct or find that there was probable cause for an arrest for the DUI, he would be able to arrest the individual for the other infractions, and he would be entitled to search the vehicle.

If, in a different scenario, the officer simply saw some mild swerving and upon pulling the person over, observed several empty liquor bottles and a bag of unmarked pills, probable cause would be established at the time the officer saw those bottles and pills. In this instance, the officer would have probable cause to search the car, but not to arrest until determining if those pills were in fact illegal (not a perscrition) and the liquor bottles actually had liquor in them or appeared recently drunk. This search could yield other information leading to arrest but the officer would not have probable cause to arrest until some illegal activity could be tied to the individual they are arresting. This standard maintains the balance between individual rights and the needs of law enforcement to uphold the law and keep communities safe.

Traffic stops are a common way for police to enforce traffic laws and ensure public safety, but law enforcement must also respect the rights of citizens when carrying out their duties. In Florida, police officers must obey clear guidelines under both state and federal law to conduct traffic stops.

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures, which include arbitrary vehicle stops. To stop a vehicle legally, an officer must have a valid reason to do so, meaning they need either reasonable suspicion or probable cause indicating that the stop is necessary. 

The principle of “stop and frisk,” set out in the Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio, allows officers to stop and question a person if they have reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is happening. In other words, Terry v. Ohio lets police officers conduct stop-and-frisk encounters without probable cause if they have reasonable suspicion of criminal behavior. While this case involved a pedestrian encounter, the concept has since extended to traffic stops. This means officers can stop drivers if they suspect a violation, like speeding or driving under the influence. They can also demand that occupants step outside the vehicle and submit to a frisking if the officer reasonably believes they are dangerous.

Florida’s Stop & Frisk Law allows police to temporarily detain a person to check their identity and the reasons for their presence at a particular location. However, they still need reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to detain people. Additionally, the detention should not last longer than necessary to gather the relevant information. Officers can frisk a person for weapons to ensure public safety if they have reasonable suspicion that the person is armed. 

Critically, police cannot search your vehicle under this law unless they reasonably suspect you have a weapon there, in which case they can “frisk” the passenger compartment as well. Otherwise, they cannot search your vehicle unless you consent, they have a warrant, or they can see something illegal in plain view.

In Florida, police officers must have reasonable suspicion or probable cause to pull you over. Here are some examples of valid reasons why Florida law enforcement might conduct a traffic stop:

  • Traffic Violations: This is the most straightforward reason for most traffic stops. Common traffic violations include speeding, running red lights, not using turn signals, and failing to yield the right of way. If officers see any of these violations happen, they have the right to stop you because these are clear instances of probable cause.
  • Reasonable Suspicion of DUI: For a DUI (driving under the influence) stop, an officer can pull you over if visual indicators suggest you are impaired by alcohol or drugs. Signs like weaving, suddenly stopping, or tailgating can lead to a stop specifically for DUI, which has its own set of legal standards for probable cause.
  • Reasonable Suspicion of Other Criminal Activity: An officer can also stop you if they have reasonable suspicion that criminal activity might be taking place. Their suspicion must be based on specific, observable facts, like erratic driving or unusual vehicle modifications, which could suggest something illegal like drug trafficking is happening.
  • Anonymous Tips: In Florida, anonymous tips can sometimes lead to traffic stops if they include enough detailed information. However, an anonymous tip alone isn’t enough for the police to pull you over. They must independently observe illegal activity or corroborate the tip’s details to establish reasonable suspicion or probable cause.

Are you facing charges as the result of a traffic stop in the Florida Keys? Reach out to Reed Palacios Law for a free initial consultation now. We can discuss your situation and help you figure out your next steps. Contact us today to get started with the support of our skilled team.