Legal Requirements to Stop a Vehicle

In the context of a suspended or revoked license charge, a vehicle stop is justified where law enforcement officials have probable cause or reasonable suspicion to believe that a driver is not properly licensed. In Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648 (1979), the US Supreme Court ruled that it is a violation of the Fourth Amendment for an officer to stop a vehicle for a license check “when there is no articulable and reasonable suspicion that a motorist is unlicensed.”

What then is reasonable suspicion that the motorist is unlicensed? Virtually all appellate appellate districts in the State of Florida have answered this question. In State v. Carrs, 568 So. 2d 120 (Fla. 5th DCA 1990), the officer cited a motorist for driving with an expired driver’s license. Approximately two days to a week later, the officer again observed the motorist driving. The officer then stopped defendant on the second occasion, suspecting that the defendant had not obtained a valid license within such a short period of time. The Fifth District Court of Appeal held that the officer’s suspicion, based on familiarity with the driver, was reasonable.

In State v. Levya, 599 So. 2d 691 (Fla. 3d DCA 1992), the Florida Third District Court of Appeals held that an officer’s knowledge of the suspended status of a defendant’s driver’s license, which was four to five weeks old, was not stale on the date of the stop and provided the officer with reasonable suspicion to make a valid, legal stop. Similarly, in State v. Wade, 673 So. 2d 906 (Fla. 3d DCA 1996), a detective conducted a driving on suspended license records check a little less than two weeks before stopping the defendant. The Third District again held that the knowledge of the defendant’s license was not stale and thus the detective possessed reasonable suspicion to pull the vehicle over.

In State v. Pugh, 635 So. 2d 999 (Fla. 2d DCA 1994), the Second District Court of Appeal of Florida found that police officers, who knew before stopping a motorist that the motorists license was suspended, had reasonable suspicion to conduct a traffic stop and probable cause to make a full scale arrest at the scene. Therefore, cocaine found in the car during a search incident to arrest should not have been suppressed.

However, in Moody v. State, 842 So. 2d 754 (Fla. 2003), a defendant was convicted of murder. Intitial police contact with the defendant arose from a traffic stop conducted by police based on a belief that the defendant did not have a valid driver’s license. The stop led to evidence of the murder being discovered. Before the traffic stop took place, it had been two years since any officer had contact with the defendant, and as long as three years since any officer had conducted a driver’s license check. Under these circumstances, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the information relied upon by officer’s was “stale,” and thus there was no adequate basis for the stop. Without reasonable suspicion, the Court ruled that the trial court should have suppressed evidence leading to the defendant’s subsequent murder conviction.

Can Police Follow Me to Conduct a License or Tag Check?

Yes. There is no bar to a police officer following a motorist anywhere within the officer’s jurisdiction and running a check on a license or tag. To do so is not a stop or seizure and does not impermissibly intrude on the defendant’s right to privacy. Discovery that the license tag does not match the vehicle furthermore justifies a stop to seek an explanation for the discrepancy, even where the officer has no reason to believe the driver was responsible for the discrepancy.

What Happens if Police Don’t Know the Driver? Can They Make a Stop?

The Florida cases cited above all involved officers who, to varying degrees, knew the defendant and presumably saw the defendant operating the vehicle prior to the stop. Thus the officer’s knew or had sufficient reason to know the defendant’s driver’s license status. What happens when the officer is unfamiliar with the defendant driver?

In Smith v. State, 574 So. 2d 300 (Fla. 5th DCA 1991), the Florida Fifth District Court of Appeal ruled that a police officer could make an investigatory stop of a vehicle after determining by radio check that the registered owner did not possess a valid driver’s license. The officer did not know the registered owner, but because dispatch advised that the owner’s driver’s license was suspended, he was permitted to the stop the car and ascertain whether the driver was licensed. The Smith case has since been cited in Guffrey v. State, 796 So. 2d 1191 (Fla. 5th DCA 2001) and in Florence v. State, 819 So. 2d 939 (Fla. 5th DCA 2002). Thus, police can arguably stop a vehicle in Florida where information indicates that the vehicle’s registered owner is not licensed. This is true even if the driver turns out not to be the owner (due to the good faith mistake of fact exception).

However, the mere fact that the driver is not the registered owner is not sufficient to support a stop, absent reasonable suspicion or probable cause to believe the vehicle has been stolen. See McCray v. State, 657 So. 2d 1 (Fla. 2d DCA 1994). Furthermore, where information indicates that the registered owner does not possess a license, and police later confirm that the driver is not the registered owner who was believed not to have a valid license, a continued detention is illegal (absent additional reasonable suspicion or probable cause). In Cresswell v. State, 564 So. 2d 480 (1990), the Florida Supreme Court held that “absent a well-founded suspicion of criminal activity, once a police officer accomplishes the purpose of a traffic stop, a continued detention is illegal.”

The bottom line: police in Florida have a range of legal justifications available to stop or pull over a person who they believe is driving with a suspended or revoked driver’s license. Police may follow a vehicle, run its tags, and, if the officer’s hunch rises to the level of reasonable suspicion, he or she may stop the vehicle to further investigate.

This is not to say that police have unlimited authority to investigate Florida motorists for driving on a suspended or revoked driver’s license. Police often cross the line and, where this occurs, the Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule prevents the use of any evidence they obtain. This includes evidence of the defendant’s identity. For years the exclusionary rule did not extend to the defendant’s identity. However, in State v. Perkins, 760 So. 2d 85 (Fla. 2000), the Florida Supreme Court held that, when an officer unlawfully stops a driver solely to determine whether he or she is driving on a suspended or revoked license (without adequate reasonable suspicion or probable cause), that officer’s observation of the driver behind the wheel must be suppressed.