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Hollywood, Real Life, And Search Warrant Exceptions In Florida


In the 1971 movie Dirty Harry, antihero Harry Callaghan pursues a fleeing murder suspect on foot. During the course of the chase, he enters the suspect’s apartment without a warrant and seizes a hunting rifle. In a subsequent conference, the prosecuting attorney informs the befuddled and upset San Francisco Police Inspector that the rifle is inadmissible, and without evidence, he must release the suspect.

That movie is now almost fifty years old. This particular scene shows how much criminal law has changed during that time period. Today, the rifle would be admissible under several of the search warrant exceptions listed below.

Essentially, the pendulum has swung the other way. Back then, officers needed search warrants for almost any search and seizure. Today, officers only bother with warrants on rare occasions, because there are so many exceptions.

Plain View

In 2018 Florida, Scorpio’s rifle (apropos of nothing, “Scorpio” was modeled after San Francisco’s real-life Zodiac serial killer, who was never caught) might be admissible under the plain view exception. If an officer is legally in a place, that officer can seize contraband which the officer sees. Officers cannot cheat and do things like use telescopes to bring far-off objects into plain view.

Partial plain view items are sometimes a problem as well. If an officer sees a white powdery residue on a bathroom counter, that substance could be cocaine, baby powder, or any number of other items.

If memory serves, Inspector Callaghan did indeed see most or all of the rifle out in the open as he pursued Scorpio. The big question would be whether or not Callaghan had the legal right to be in that apartment in the first place. But fear not, Dirty Harry fans. Plain view is only the first exception in our examination.

Hot Pursuit/Exigent Circumstances

If officers pursue a suspect who enters a building, they do not need to break off the chase to get a warrant to enter the building. They can keep up the pursuit and they can also seize any evidence they see in their plain view while inside said building. This exception clearly seems to apply to Scorpio’s hunting rifle.

Exigent circumstances usually apply when officers believe that someone may be in immediate danger. If they have information that a man with a gun is inside a building, they can basically bust down the door. Moreover, they may search the building to ensure that everyone inside is safe. Today, this exception might let the rifle be used in court, but it is a shaky argument.

Search Incident to Arrest

For a while, this exception would have worked as well in Port St. Lucie. From about the late 70s to the early 90s, officers could literally turn a car or dwelling inside-out if they arrested a suspect in the car or dwelling. Such power even came from a ticky-tack arrest. Many traffic tickets are technically arrestable offenses in Florida.

But the Supreme Court has limited these searches to weapons pat-downs. So, unless Scorpio had the rifle under his coat, today’s officers would be unable to look for it, let alone seize it.

Reach Out to Aggressive Lawyers

Florida police officers have broad powers to search for and take evidence without warrants. For a free consultation with an experienced criminal defense attorney in Port St. Lucie, contact Eighmie Law Firm, P.A. We routinely handle cases throughout the Treasure Coast area.

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