When is a Suspicion Founded Sufficiently to Support a Detention?

Kristen Larson

Earlier this month the Florida Supreme Court heard Williams v. State. (SC13-2315). The central issue in this case is whether the Fourth District Court of Appeals erred in affirming the trial court’s admission of evidence that was obtained when a police officer stopped Williams without, as Williams contends, the required reasonable suspicion, based on the totality of the circumstances, to make such a stop.
The facts of the case are as follows: An experienced narcotics officer was conducting an active investigation of an individual in a car where he had seen a crack cocaine pipe in plain view. Williams approached the vehicle to speak with the individual. When the officer acknowledged Williams, Williams began walking away with a closed fist. The officer then attempted to stop Williams, at which point Williams turned around and a bag of cocaine fell out of his hand.
Williams argued that he was detained when the evidence was discovered and that the officer did not have the requisite suspicion to detain him. Williams’s argument that he was detained is based on Dees v. State, 564 So. 2d 1166, 1167 (Fla. 1st DCA), which states that detention occurs when a reasonable person no longer feels free to leave. To make such a stop the officer must have a founded suspicion based on the totality of the circumstances surrounding the stop. Williams argued that merely speaking to an individual in a parked car, with a clenched fist, was not enough for a founded suspicion. Further, Williams cited to Hollinger v. State, 620 So. 2d 1242 (Fla. 1993), which held that contraband dropped during an illegal stop must be suppressed. Therefore, Petitioner contends that the evidence obtained from the illegal seizure should have been suppressed.
The State contended that Williams approached a person who was under active investigation by the officer, thus distinguishing this case from the cases cited by Williams. Further, the State argued that the reviewing court should defer to the trial court’s decision when a trial court hears a motion to suppress, and that the officer had founded suspicion because: “1) it was 1 a.m. in a dark parking lot; 2) an ongoing criminal investigation was occurring after a crack pipe had been discovered; 3) Petitioner [Williams], in the immediate presence of the police, began to engage the subject of the investigation who was being detained; and, 4) when asked what he was doing turning to the inquiring police officer and began to walk away with a clenched fist.” (Ans. Br. At pg 13). Thus, in light of the officer’s experience, the state argued that the totality of the circumstances supported a finding of a reasonable suspicion. Alternatively, the State asked the Court to consider whether the drop happened before the stop, thus making the evidence obtained not subject to the founded suspicion requirement.
Video of the argument is available here.