Nervousness Is Insufficient to Detain You During a Routine Traffic Stop

Imagine that while driving your car, you are stopped by the police for having an expired tag or for speeding.  The officer approaches and tells you the reason for your stop.  He / she then asks for your license, registration and insurance card.

The officer then asks you to step out of the car.  After you do, you’re patted down and drugs, a gun or other contraband are found on you.  The officer then searches your car and finds more of the same.  You’re then arrested and charged with possession of a controlled substance, drug trafficking or as a felon in possession of a firearm.  What can you do?  The answer in short:  sometimes plenty.

The above is a common scenario for what should otherwise be a simple, routine traffic stop where you’re issued a ticket and then go on your way.  Fortunately, a skilled and knowledgeable criminal attorney can oftentimes not only lessen the effects of this incident on you, but perhaps obtain reduced charges or even an outright dismissal of your charges.   

The circumstance of a routine traffic stop often cause an officer to believe you’re either doing something illegal or you possess something illegal, such as drugs, or guns if you’re a convicted felon.  But, to detain you and investigate further, the officer has to identify the circumstances giving rise to a “reasonable suspicion” you were engaged in criminal activity.

In many instances, the officers claim you were nervous and that provided a reasonable suspicion to further detain you during your traffic stop.  In Florida, however, nervousness alone is insufficient to give rise to a reasonable suspicion you were engaging in criminal activity.  Therefore, if you were detained during your traffic stop because the officer said you appeared nervous, a skilled criminal defense lawyer may be able to get your case dismissed.

Two Florida cases underscore that an officer’s purported observation of you being nervous is insufficient to warrant your further detention beyond that necessary to address your traffic infractions.  The first is Rouse v. State; 643 So.2d 696, 697 (Fla. 1st DCA 1994) In Rouse  a driver and his passenger were both detained after an initial stop for an expired tag in high crime area because both appeared nervous, the passenger possessed a bundle of cash and the driver was wearing gold jewelry which the officer said was common among drug dealers.  The court, however, deemed the detention was improper and warranted suppression of all evidence obtained from th detention.  As a result, the State had no incriminating evidence to use in court and the case was dropped.  And, in State v. Arnold; 475 So.2d 301, 307 (Fla. 2d DCA 1985) the court found officers lacked reasonable suspicion to stop and detain the defendant based on his personal appearance and his apparent nervousness.

The reasoning in these cases is that, in the context of a traffic stop, nervousness is an unreliable indicator of reasonable suspicion as many people become nervous during a traffic stop, even when they have nothing to hide or fear.  Stated otherwise, the courts recognize it is not uncommon for most people – whether innocent or guilty – to exhibit signs of nervousness when confronted by a law enforcement officer.  So nervousness alone cannot justify your detention during a routine traffic stop.

If you were detained following a routine traffic stop and subsequently arrested for possession of drugs, guns or other contraband, you may have defenses to your charges depending on the reasons given by the officer for your detention.  Therefore, if your case began with a traffic stop, you should contact a Jacksonville criminal defense attorney with knowledge about, and experience with, the law governing these matters.  By doing so you will give yourself the best chance of avoiding a felony conviction and significant jail or prison time.  Please call me for a free consultation to discuss how I can help you with your case in Duval, Clay, Nassau, Baker or St. Johns Counties.

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