How Long Should an Illegal Stop Last?

police car.jpgWe all make mistakes at work, right? But, it’s hard to admit when we’re wrong. So, what happens when an officer pulls over an Orlando citizen, only to discover soon thereafter that the reason for his stop is no longer valid? Does the officer just continue on, like he did nothing wrong, or leave? Well, lucky for you, our Florida courts have recently addressed just such an issue–let’s take a peek.

The case is Sowerby v. State, 2011 WL 5109234 (Fla. 5th DCA 2011), in which the defendant’s car was stopped because the license plate was not in the mounting brackets. Sowerby was driving on a suspended license–actually, a permanently revoked license. As you know, that’s a felony charge here in Florida. The problem is, the tag was a dealer tag, and dealer tags are not required to be mounted in the brackets as normal tags are, so Sowerby’s car never should have been pulled over! The officer actually testified that, as he approached the car, he realized the tag was a dealer tag, but he went ahead and asked for Sowerby’s license and registration anyway. Oops.

So, what’s the law here? We all know that when the cops pull you over, they may detain you only as long as is necessary to effectuate the purpose of the stop. There’s a big problem here, as the officer should have never even spoke a word to Sowerby, as the officer’s reason for the stop had ended before the officer arrived at Sowerby’s driver window. The 5th DCA suppressed all evidence, and Sowerby’s charges were thrown out of court, with the appeals court citing a similar case of State v. Diaz, 850 So.2d 435 (Fla. 2003), a Florida Supreme Court case addressing a felony driving while license suspended where the stop involved an officer misreading a temporary tag. Our high court found that:

“once a police officer has totally satisfied the purpose for which he has initially stopped and detained the motorist, the officer no longer has any reasonable grounds or legal basis for continuing the detention of the motorist. Here, as soon as the officer determined the validity of Mr. Diaz’s temporary tag, he no longer had reasonable grounds or any other basis, legal or otherwise, to further detain Mr. Diaz….the officer’s actions in further detaining Mr. Diaz equated to nothing less than an indiscriminate, baseless detention…” Id.

So now you know how long an illegal stop should take. About zero seconds.