When Does a “Knock and Talk” Become a Fourth Amendment Violation?
A police officer can engage in a “knock and talk,” which is a purely consensual encounter, at any time. There is no need for any level of suspicion or probable cause. On the other hand, warrantless searches are considered unreasonable and violate the Fourth Amendment. Evidence found from a warrantless search should be suppressed. A recent Hillsborough County case illustrates how Tampa deputies crossed the line and conducted an illegal search under the guise of innocent inquiry.
In Hardin v. State, deputies patrolled a Motel 6 parking lot and noticed a parked car with a Brownsville, Texas, license plate. The deputies considered Brownsville a hub of illegal drug activity, so they questioned the motel clerk who gave the deputies room information associated with the car. Because the name of the registration did not match the motel’s guest records, the deputies became even more suspicious and instigated a “knock and talk” with the registered motel guests, Gerardo Hardin and his wife, Ms. Sierra.
Hardin spoke to several deputies outside the motel room, then consented to a female deputy, Glasscock, entering the room to speak to Sierra, who was naked in bed under the sheets. Glasscock determined she would need a translator because Sierra did not speak English so another male deputy, Baez, arrived twenty minutes later. Baez entered the motel room to translate for Glasscock.
The deputies warned Hardin and Sierra that they were searching for illegal drugs. Hardin gave them his permission to search the car and a K-9 unit was called. The deputies did not find any drugs. Glasscock and Baez meanwhile obtained Sierra’s consent to search the motel room and the deputies found nothing. Throughout this time, Sierra stayed in bed, naked under the sheets.
The deputies continued to badger Sierra, told her they knew she had drugs, and promised they would not charge her if she was cooperative. Sierra stated that she wanted no trouble. The deputies continued to harass Sierra until she finally gave them a purse containing cocaine from under the bed sheets. The male deputies exited the room while Sierra dressed and Hardin yelled from the parking lot that the drugs were his.
Hardin was arrested and pled guilty to trafficking in cocaine. He moved to suppress on the grounds that Sierra did not voluntarily turn over the drugs. The trial court denied Hardin’s motion and Hardin was convicted and sentenced for cocaine trafficking. Hardin appealed.
To decide whether consent is voluntary, the court must consider the totality of the circumstances and the following factors: (1) time and place of the encounter; (2) number of deputies present; (3) the deputies’ words and actions. The court must weigh the factors from a reasonable person’s perspective – as someone who is untrained in the law—to decide whether he or she was free to end the consensual encounter.
The Second District Court of Appeals noted the motel room was not big or spacious. Further, three deputies, including two men, were in the room while Sierra was naked and her husband was outside. Both Hardin and Sierra knew they were being investigated for illegal drugs. The deputies’ repeatedly telling Sierra they knew she had drugs and would not be charged if she cooperated indicated coercion, not voluntary consent, compelled Sierra to turn over the contraband. Accordingly, the Second District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s decision, agreeing that Sierra did not voluntarily hand over the contraband to the deputies and the trial court should have granted the motion to suppress.
If you believe your Fourth Amendment rights have been violated or have questions regarding your drug trafficking charge, do not hesitate to contact the St. Petersburg drug trafficking defense attorneys at Rooth Law Group for a free consultation today.