S.P. v. State

CourtCourt of Appeal of Florida (US)
Citation331 So.3d 883
Docket Number2D21-631
Parties S.P., Appellant, v. STATE of Florida, Appellee.
Decision Date07 January 2022

Howard L. Dimmig, II, Public Defender, and Pamela Izakowitz, Assistant Public Defender, Bartow, for Appellant.

Ashley Moody, Attorney General, Tallahassee, and James A. Hellickson, Assistant Attorney General, Tampa, for Appellee.

LUCAS, Judge.

S.P.1 appeals her judgment and sentence, arguing that the trial court erred in denying her motion to suppress evidence of cocaine that was found in her wallet while she was being placed into protective custody pursuant to the Baker Act.2 Because the sheriff deputy's warrantless search of her wallet violated her Fourth Amendment rights, we reverse.

I.

The following facts were adduced at the suppression hearing. In the waning hours of August 25, 2020, Sarasota County Sheriff's Office Deputy Tate Anderson received a call of a family disturbance at a house. When he arrived, Deputy Anderson met with S.P. and her boyfriend.3 They had been in an argument, and S.P. wanted the deputy to remove her boyfriend from the house. Deputy Tate testified S.P. appeared "very intoxicated" at the time, but in his estimation, her condition did not warrant taking her into protective custody under the Marchman Act.4 Because he had no lawful authority to remove her boyfriend and because there was no indication of any criminal activity, Deputy Anderson left the couple and drove away.

A few hours later, at around 3:00 a.m. on August 26, S.P.'s boyfriend left to look for Deputy Anderson, whom he found parked nearby. According to Deputy Anderson, the boyfriend stated that S.P. "was very intoxicated, that she was – that she walked away from him, and said that she had a gun, and that she was threatening to shoot herself."

Deputy Anderson, along with other deputies on patrol, went in search of S.P. and eventually found her at a Disabled American Veterans post in Nokomis. The record of what transpired next is not entirely clear, so we will reproduce Deputy Anderson's testimony as it was given before the trial court:

Q. And what was her demeanor like when you made contact with her?
A. Uhm, sheshe seemed visibly upset at the time, but I think that – when we walked up she seemed upset, but she wasn't – she wasn't crying or anything right then, I don't believe. But we made contact, she was real upset. And at that time myself, and Sergeant Lewis was there with me, and another deputy was there and, you know, we kind of just talked to her just to check her welfare.
Q. Did she make any statements to you?
A. She – when we first walked up she made a couple of statements, just about our tactics how we walked up, how it was unsafe how we walked up. How if she was wanting to harm us, she could have, but sheshe kind of just made a little comment. We kind of just talked to her. My Sergeant Lewis actually pulled her aside and had kind of a more private conversation with her about her, just checking her welfare to determine her – determine if she met our criteria for a Baker Act.
Q. Okay. And did you determine if she did meet your criteria for a Baker Act at that time?
A. Yeah. My sergeant notified me that she did meet the criteria for a Baker Act at that time.

We have no way of knowing what passed between Sergeant Lewis and S.P. because Sergeant Lewis never testified at the suppression hearing. Deputy Anderson, the State's only witness, testified that at his sergeant's direction he placed S.P. into custody, which entailed handcuffing her, searching her person, and placing her into the back of his patrol car. He found a gun in her purse. He also found a wallet in her back pocket, which was attached to a chain. After S.P. was handcuffed and in the back of his patrol car, Deputy Anderson opened her wallet. Along with personal identification, he found a small baggie containing a substance he suspected was cocaine. He field tested the substance, and it was indeed cocaine.

When asked why he conducted the search in the manner he had, Deputy Anderson relayed that it was his department's policy to always search any individual who is riding in the back of their patrol cars. The reason for searching her wallet, he said, was for his safety and hers as well because she could have had a weapon concealed within it. Moreover, he remarked:

I don't know what their training is at those receiving facilities or if they are equipped to search someone, if they do search someone.... If she has – whether it be dangerous narcotics or another weapon in her wallet, I'm handing them over, I'm going to assure that I've checked her and that she's safe.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the circuit judge ruled from the bench. As to the appropriateness of S.P.'s being taken into custody, the court stated, "I can't go back and determine whether or not the Baker Act was reasonable or lawful or appropriate at that time. I think that was a determination for law enforcement." The court then concluded that under the authority of Collins v. State , 125 So. 3d 1046 (Fla. 4th DCA 2013), the deputy's search of S.P.'s wallet was lawful and appropriate. S.P. entered a plea agreement, reserving the right to appeal the circuit court's dispositive ruling on her motion to suppress, and was adjudicated guilty and sentenced to probation. She now asks us to review that ruling.

II.

We employ a mixed standard of review for suppression orders: factual findings are reviewed for competent substantial evidence, while legal determinations are reviewed de novo. See State v. Vazquez , 295 So. 3d 373, 378 (Fla. 2d DCA 2020) (citing Pagan v. State , 830 So. 2d 792, 806 (Fla. 2002) ). Moreover, a trial court's application of the law to historical facts is also de novo. Cuervo v. State , 967 So. 2d 155, 160 (Fla. 2007) (citing Connor v. State , 803 So. 2d 598, 608 (Fla. 2001) ). Suppression orders enjoy a presumption of correctness. See Cruz v. State , 320 So. 3d 695, 712 (Fla. 2021) ("A trial court's ruling on a motion to suppress comes to the appellate court clothed with a presumption of correctness and the court must interpret the evidence and reasonable inferences and deductions derived therefrom in a manner most favorable to sustaining the trial court's ruling." (quoting Jackson v. State , 18 So. 3d 1016, 1027 (Fla. 2009) )). In the case at bar, the circuit court did not issue factual findings but premised its ruling on two legal issues, which we turn to now.

III.

It appears the circuit court determined (at least implicitly) that the sheriff's deputies appropriately took S.P. into protective custody because the court felt it could not review a law enforcement officer's decision to do so under the Baker Act. We must correct that misconception at the outset. Although law enforcement officers are vested with a certain level of discretion when determining whether an individual meets the criteria under the Baker Act, a circuit court most assuredly can review the propriety of an officer's decision to place an individual into protective custody pursuant to that act. Cf. Diaz v. State , 181 So. 2d 351, 353 (Fla. 2d DCA 1965) ("[I]t was entirely within the trial court's province in this particular instance to resolve the disputed question as to whether a legal arrest had been made."); State v. E.A. , 35 So. 3d 1006, 1006–07 (Fla. 3d DCA 2010) (reversing and remanding order granting motion to suppress "for the trial judge to enter adequate findings of fact determining the credibility of testimony on the issue of whether or not a seizure within the Fourth Amendment had occurred to implicate a finding on probable cause"). Since the court denied S.P.'s suppression motion, it effectively rejected her claim that her noncriminal seizure was unlawful, and so we will address that issue first.

A.

Was there "a substantial likelihood that without care or treatment" S.P. would "cause serious bodily harm" to "herself or others in the near future, as evidenced by [her] recent behavior"? See § 394.463(1)(b)2, Fla. Stat. (2020). On this record, the application of that law to these facts—and whether there was probable cause to take S.P. into custody—would present a close call. As the Eleventh Circuit observed in Watkins v. Bigwood , 797 Fed. Appx. 438, 442 (11th Cir. 2019), in reversing the dismissal of a plaintiff's section 1983 false arrest claim:

[U]nder the Baker Act, probable cause must have existed—evidenced by Plaintiff's recent behavior—to believe that a "substantial likelihood" existed that Plaintiff would cause "serious bodily harm" to himself or to others in the near future. This standard is a high one: for example, a reasonable belief about "some likelihood," "might cause" "some kind of bodily harm," "at some point in the future" is not good enough for probable cause to deprive a person of their freedom.

Recently, our court held in J.W. v. State , 313 So. 3d 909, 911-12 (Fla. 2d DCA 2021), that a trial court should not have accepted a defendant's nolo contendere pleas to resisting arrest with violence and battery on a law enforcement officer because the only factual basis for the pleas—a police report affidavit—did not support the State's theory that the victim police officer was engaged in the official legal duty of arresting the defendant for an involuntary Baker Act evaluation. The facts reported in the affidavit did not document any mental impairment

on the part of the defendant who, at the time of his arrest, was sitting on a couch in his home being evaluated by EMS personnel for "medical issues." Id. at 912. And the affidavit's recitation from the defendant's wife—who stated that the defendant had been drinking alcohol and taking more of his anxiety medication than he should have—did not provide an "articulable reason for J.W. to have been subjected to an involuntary physical seizure under the Baker Act." Id. (citing Watkins , 797 Fed. Appx. at 442 ).

The record in the case at bar is not quite as scant, but nor is it particularly compelling. When the...

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