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Collision With A Turtle Does Not A Search Warrant Make

A law enforcement officer’s empathy for a turtle injured by a passing car cannot justify an unlawful search and criminal prosecution…….

It’s simple.   Anger resulting from empathy for an injured animal does not give the police the right to search your car and arrest you.

Most of us like turtles.   They’re goofy, obstinate, relentless, single-minded, and fun to play with.  (Be careful—‘molesting’ certain turtles can result in violations of both State and Federal law).

But in State of Florida vs. C.S. St. Lucie County case no.: 56-2014-MM-002234A, C.S.  did not molest a turtle.  Yet her car was unlawfully stopped by an off-duty police officer; who then illegally  searched her car; and upon finding less than 20 grams of cannabis in a baggie, along with a ‘one-hitter’, both located in the closed center console of her vehicle, arrested her,  charged here with two (2) crimes 1, handcuffed her, and sent her off to the St. Lucie County Jail, infamously known locally as “the rock.”

C.S. is a twenty-six (26) year old female with no prior record.   At the time of the arrest, she was following her fiancé’, “R.L.”  while traveling northbound on I-95 in St. Lucie County, (which you may have read about in other areas of this site), after a day at the beach.

They had met at the ocean in separate cars, and were returning to C.S.’s home in Vero Beach.  C.S was driving at or below the speed limit, as was R.L., who was in his car, approximately 5 car lengths in front of her.

C.S. saw a turtle that had met its demise while attempting to cross the busy interstate, and was located on the edge of the roadway in the right hand lane, crushed and motionless.  C.S. swerved slightly to avoid running over the hapless tortoise, (who already was having a very bad day), and continued on, following R.L.

An off-duty St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Detective, traveling in the opposite direction on the highway, slammed on his breaks, executed a perfect U-Turn, and began pursuing C.S.  He “lit her up”, and upon doing so, she immediately decelerated and pulled onto the shoulder of the highway.

In sum, here how C.S.’s arrest affidavit describes the incident:

‘I responded to the area of Indrio Road to assist on a traffic stop. Upon my arrival, I spoke to the Sergeant, who stated he observed C.S.  following too closely to another vehicle.  The Sgt. initiated a traffic stop for violation of Fla. Stat. 316.0895(1)–Following too closely.  

As the Sgt. Approached the driver’s side window, the odor of Marijuana was immediately present, emanating from within her vehicle.

C.S. was removed from the vehicle and a search of the car ensued.

While searching the vehicle, the center console was opened.  Inside the center console, a clear plastic bag containing marijuana was immediately observed.  Next to the bag was a multicolored cylindrical glass pipe.  Based on my training and experience,, I was able to to identify this pipe as paraphernalia, commonly used to smoke marijuana. (brilliant, Holmes.  Brilliant!)

C.S. was placed under arrest…’

“Wait”….. I hear you cry;   you said this case was about a turtle.

It is.

C.S. and her finace’ R.L.,2   relayed a far different chronicle of events.  Their version described a furious off-duty police-officer, who mistakenly believed C.S. had run-over the already deceased lumbering Testudinan reptile; became enraged; ripped the previously-described U-Turn, and, being out-of-control enraged that Tommy Turtle had been dispatched, ordered C.S. out of the car; then unceremoniously and thoroughly searched the entire interior of the vehicle until opening the center console, and finding the weed.

Both C.S. and R.L. told the same version of events.   To the letter.

The arrest affidavit is nothing but a rabbit-like, ‘quick and dirty’ rendition of what had occurred on that afternoon.  (Before witnesses testify in Court, they first must swear they will tell the “truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth).   The   police version met none of those three (3) criteria, and  was nothing but a ‘cover-up— omitting  the critical core of what happened that day: A  furious law enforcement officer, angered by what he believed to be the senseless killing of a turtle, decided that his anger and frustration would damn well be taken out on someone.

It is curious indeed that the arrest affidavit does not even mention R.L., a witness to the entire affair.  Nor does it mention anything about any turtle.

It is true that all containers, no matter what materials are used to manufacture them, have some degree of permeability where odors are concerned.  (For more information, please see former Law Enforcement Drug Interdiction Officer Barry Cooper’s videos on www.nevergetbusted.com)

But the negligible amount of cannabis here, wrapped in a baggie, and residue encased in a sealed glass pipe, both of which are located in a closed center console of a car, would lead any reasonable person to conclude that a cop’s claim that he could detect the odor of raw marijuana while standing outside of the vehicle, ten (10) feet away, is, at a minimum, difficult to believe.

Let’s call it what it is—UNBELIEVABLE.

You see, under current 4th Amendment law from the U.S. Supreme Court, an officer’s claim that he smells raw marijuana during a traffic stop, is sufficient to allow the cop to search the entire interior of the vehicle.

The cops know this.   And ever since that Supreme Court decision proclaiming that such an odor justifies a search, their olfactory senses appear to have become remarkably refined.  Apprarently refined enough to detect the odor of a tiny amount of cannabis in a plastic bag and a sealed glass pipe, in a closed compartment of the interior of a vehicle, from a government agent standing ten (10) plus feet away, on the outside of the car.

C.S. was facing two (2) First Degree misdemeanor offenses in Florida; each punishable by a maximum of a year in the county jail, $1,000.00 fine, and/or a year of probation.  The State of Florida graciously offered C.S. a year of probation, substance abuse evaluation and treatment, random urinalysis upon the whim of the State to detect the presence of contraband, no alcohol for a year, and more conditions and fines, ad nauseum.

We decided instead to file a Motion to Suppress the evidence.  Per the ‘exclusionary rule’, if the police act illegally in this kind of situation, they don’t go to jail; they don’t lose their jobs; they don’t get suspended; they don’t even pay a fine.   When police act illegally, by violating a citizen’s 4th amendment rights during a criminal investigation—–the punishment is that they cannot use any of the evidence they recovered as a result of their illegal activities.

A motion to suppress is heard by the Trial Judge alone, who takes evidence, including physical evidence and live testimony from witnesses, at a hearing.

And that’s what happened here.

At the hearing, the police Sergeant testified.   Interestingly, the Sergeant testified under oath that his job was with the “Special Investigations Unit”, a division of the Sheriff’s office that is exclusively involved with “drug interdiction”.

A fact omitted from the arrest affidavit.

The Sergeant also testified that he saw a “big turtle” in the road, and that it was “splattered” all over the road.

Another fact deliberately omitted from the arrest affidavit, and one which coincided precisely with C.S. and R.L.’s rendition of what had occurred.

C.S. and R.L. also testified at the hearing.  They described the entire incident, including that the officer was extremely angry about the turtle, and that they were driving at a proper, safe distance from one another at the time of the stop.   One of the defense arguments at the hearing was that the Sergeant’s claim that C.S. was following R.L. too closely, was unverifiable,  per the law mentioned earlieras the law was too vague and indistinct to be enforceable.

Which is precisely what the Judge ruled.  The Defense Motion to Suppress Evidence was GRANTED. The State of Florida was left with a case that was a “barmecide feast”—- a feast, but a feast with no food.

The Government was left with nothing in terms of evidence to support the charges.  They had no choice but to enter a Nolle Prosequi (unconditional dismissal) of both charges.

Just as in Aesop’s fable, the  Tortoise of the truth once again bested the Hare of the  hastily compiled  police report; hurriedly designed to  cover-up the truth, and filled with misrepresentations, omissions and prevarications.

St. Lucie County Unlawful Search

1  One (1) count of possession of marijuana, and one (1) count of possession of narcotics paraphernalia, for the baggie and the one-hitter.

2  Who had pulled off to the shoulder of the highway, exited his car, and walked back to observe what was happening with his fiancé’.