Florida Supreme Court to hear traffic stop passenger seizure case

By Carrie Salls | Jun 3, 2016

DAYTONA BEACH – The Florida Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal of a 5th Circuit Court of Appeal ruling that requires passengers in a vehicle stopped for a traffic violation to remain in the vehicle or at the scene of the traffic stop.

The circuit court’s ruling covers 13 counties in Florida, including Volusia, Flagler, Putnam, St. Johns, Orange, Osceola, Lake, Marion, Sumter, Citrus, Hernando, Brevard and Seminole counties. If the Florida Supreme Court agrees with the ruling, it will become the law throughout the state.

The ruling stems from a case in which Edwin Aguiar, a passenger in a vehicle during a traffic stop, stayed in the vehicle at the officer’s request and was arrested on a drug charge and ultimately convicted.

In its ruling, the circuit court cited a case in which the U.S. Supreme Court gave weight to statistics showing the danger associated with traffic stops.

“Per the law, (passengers) will not be allowed to leave and will have to comply with the lawful orders of a law enforcement officer,” Jim Troiano, operational support section director and commander of the Law Enforcement Reserve Unit for the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office, told the Florida Record.

Troiano said each case will differ, depending on the specific circumstances of the traffic stop, and the officer’s decision of whether or not to require the passenger to actually remain in the vehicle must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. 

“Many times, it is all about the safety of the officer and the facts surrounding the stop,” Troiano said. “It is also about the safety of the person who departs a vehicle. In some cases, they may be on a limited access highway and they cannot walk to the roadway without it being any emergency. Other times it is dangerous for them to get out as they may cause a traffic issue.”

The potential of criminal activity also plays a role in the officer’s decision, Troiano said. 

“You never know who you are stopping and you do not know what they may have just done,” he said. “Traffic stops are inherently dangerous.”

The Florida laws that apply to “seizing” passengers during a traffic stop include resisting an officer without violence (FSS 843.02), which is a misdemeanor, and being on a limited access highway, which falls under a non-criminal infraction related to the requirement of pedestrians when on roadways (FSS 316.130), according to Troiano.

“After careful consideration, this is a matter that has been ruled on and is now going to be reviewed by the Florida Supreme Court and maybe even the U.S. Supreme Court,” Troiano said. “Our actions must always be reasonable and justified and in accordance with the law. The case is now law and officers have the right to order someone to stay in their vehicle. If they do not comply, they may be charged with a violation of FSS 843.02.”

Troiano said the police ask citizens to comply with the lawful commands of an officer, no matter what the law. If a citizen has questions or complaints related to the actions of law enforcement officers, he said they should ask for clarification and “act in a professional and respectful manner.” If the issue cannot be resolved at the scene, Troiano said the citizen should contact the officer’s immediate supervisor to resolve the problem.

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