Florida Supreme Court Clarifies the Inevitable Discovery Doctrine

On December 10, 2015, the Florida Supreme Court decided Miguel Rodriguez v. State of Florida, case number SC14-160. Mr. Rodriguez had challenged a decision of the Third District Court of Appeal, arguing that it conflicted with decisions of the Florida Supreme Court and other district courts of appeal on the application of the “inevitable discovery” doctrine in criminal cases. The Florida Supreme Court agreed that the Third District had improperly applied the inevitable discovery doctrine.

The case began when bail bondsmen found a large stash of narcotics in Rodriguez’s home where they were searching for a missing client. The bondsmen alerted the police. The police did not seek a search warrant. They requested Rodriguez’s consent to search the house, but the trial court found that he was coerced and the consent was invalid.

However, the trial court did not suppress the evidence of the narcotics because the judge found that probable cause had been established by the bondsmen’s report to the police, and “if they had not gotten consent they would have gone and gotten a warrant;” so they inevitably would have discovered the evidence anyway. The Third DCA affirmed the ruling.

In the Florida Supreme Court, Rodriguez argued that the trial court improperly relied on the inevitable discovery doctrine because law enforcement had not already been conducting a separate ongoing investigation, and the officers were not in the process of obtaining a warrant when the search occurred.

The Supreme Court noted that, under the inevitable discovery doctrine, evidence obtained as the result of an unconstitutional police procedure such as a warrantless search may still be admissible if the evidence would ultimately have been discovered by legal means. However, the State must show that the police already had an independent investigation underway and were already in the process of obtaining a warrant, as well as showing that they had probable cause to obtain a warrant, when the unwarranted search occurred.

The Court concluded that “permitting warrantless searches without the prosecution demonstrating that the police were in pursuit of a warrant is not a proper application of the inevitable discovery rule.” The doctrine cannot apply “simply when police could have obtained a search warrant if they had taken the opportunity to pursue one, but can only apply if they actually were in pursuit of one.”

Although the narcotics officers probably would have received a warrant if they had sought one, it was not a certainty and they did not seek one. They asked for Rodriguez’s consent to search, but it was invalid because he was coerced. A separate investigation had not been initiated prior to the search, nor were any steps taken in pursuit of a warrant. The Court held: “We cannot apply the inevitable discovery rule in every case where the police had probable cause to obtain a warrant but simply failed to get one. Accordingly, the officers’ failure to seek a search warrant precludes the application of the inevitable discovery doctrine in this case.” Thus, the Supreme Court quashed the Third District’s decision, as the trial court should have suppressed the evidence obtained from the warrantless search.