-Submitted by David Drumm (Nal), Guest Blogger
Last week, the Fourth District Court of Appeal of the state of Florida issued a ruling denying the motion to suppress. Ruiz v. State of Florida is a drug case dealing with “consent” to search. Freddie Ruiz, charged with trafficking in cocaine and possession of cannabis, moved to suppress, alleging that the evidence was seized unlawfully.
At the hearing, for the motion to suppress, detectives testified that they received an anonymous tip that someone with dreadlocks was dealing narcotics from a certain apartment. Ruiz had dreadlocks. The detectives parked their car in the parking lot of the apartment complex and when Ruiz left the complex, the detectives got out of their car and “nonchalantly” or “casually” approached Ruiz. One detective “calmly” asked Ruiz his name and if he had identification. Ruiz said “Freddie” and that “he had his identification in his apartment, if [the officer] would like to see it.” When they got to his apartment, Ruiz went inside and “motioned” or “nodded” at the detectives to enter. As one detective followed Ruiz to the bedroom, he noticed a scale and a spoon with cocaine residue. The detective asked Ruiz if the residue was cocaine, and Ruiz admitted it was.
Ruiz also testified at the same hearing, but his version of events was substantially different from that of the detectives. Ruiz was coming back from the store when three officers stopped their vehicle in front of him, jumped out with guns drawn, and told him not to move. One officer frisked him and asked for identification. When Ruiz said he didn’t have ID, the officer threatened to arrest him if he didn’t produce ID. Ruiz said his identification was at his apartment. The officers escorted Ruiz to his apartment and after he opened the door, the officers went inside and searched through everything.
The trial judge found the officers “very credible” and Ruiz “not credible.” The trial judge found that Ruiz “allowed” the police to “come into” his apartment.
Although the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court, deferring to the trial court’s finding of fact, the Chief Judge pulled back the curtain:
Over time, the concept of “consent” to a search has become divorced from its common meaning.
Another possibility, far more sinister, is that the police have come to recognize that “consent” is the catch-all exception to the Fourth Amendment, so they tailor their testimony accordingly.
Cases like this one call into question the fairness of some trial court proceedings. On the pages of the record, the story told by the police is unbelievable—an anonymous informant gives incriminating information; police surveillance uncovers no criminal conduct; the defendant is “nonchalantly” and “casually” approached by the police on the street; the defendant cooperatively leads the police back to his apartment to obtain his identification and invites the police inside, where a detective sees contraband in plain view, a fact certainly known to the defendant when he issued the invitation; after his arrest, the defendant tells the police about all the hidden drugs in the apartment.
Yet, as an appellate court, we must defer to the express finding of credibility made by the trial court.
The testimony of the officers does not have the ring of truth. The prosecutors surely recognized this, yet they allowed to testimony anyway. That’s how the game is played. The trial judge played his part. It’s judicial theater and it mocks the Constitution.
Whether Ruiz granted consent or not is a finding of fact and that determination should have been left to a jury.
The Ring of Truth was a PBS series hosted by physicist Phillip Morrison.