Broward News

West Palm Beach Teen Wins Appeal in Weed Bust Because Search Happened Before School

A West Palm Beach teenager's conviction for possessing a half gram of weed was reversed because the cop who arrested him says he stopped the kid for truancy -- but the kid wasn't actually skipping school at the time, making the initial stop unlawful and the evidence obtained inadmissable.

According to a ruling by the appeals court issued on November 5, the kid, a 15-year-old referred to only as "J.R." in court documents because he's a minor, had his rights violated when the unnamed police officer stopped and searched him. The cop claims he saw J.R. leave a designated school bus stop before the bus arrived and believed the kid was skipping class, so he decided to see what the youngster was up to.

"I initiated the stop based upon what I believe was truancy, and I took the cigars from him, and I patted him down for my protection," the cop said in court. "And I saw -- I felt in his pocket what I believed to be a knife, an open -- a closed buck knife. And when I pulled it from his pocket, I saw that it was a knife, and I had also grabbed with my fingers what I would say is a nickel bag of marijuana or a small half gram bag of marijuana in a ziplock."

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The hawk-eyed peace officer then arrested J.R. for possession of marijuana. He claims J.R. admitted to devoting the rest of the morning to getting high and skipping class. This testimony led to J.R. getting convicted of misdemeanor marijuana possession.

But the weed possession and the revealing of smoke-filled day plans were ultimately thrown out by the Fourth District Court because the cop admitted he didn't really know when school started:

On cross-examination, the officer testified that J.R.'s bus usually shows up around 8:15 a.m., which was the time he saw J.R. walking away from the bus stop. He acknowledged that he did not know whether the bus came before or after he stopped J.R. because he was busy following J.R. He also acknowledged that there were other bus stops in the area. Although the officer was not sure of the exact time when school started, he conceded that school could have started at 9:30 a.m.

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Since the cop admitted to not really knowing if J.R. was a truant when he stopped the kid for truancy, this is how the court ruled:

In this case, the officer initiated a stop of a juvenile for truancy without reasonable grounds to believe that the child was absent from school. Although the officer may have believed that J.R. was planning to miss school based on his observations of J.R.'s movements and location before school started, section 984.13 does not authorize an officer to preemptively detain a child who may be plotting to skip school later. Here, the officer detained the juvenile for truancy well over an hour before school was scheduled to start. J.R. could not have been "absent" from school before it began or was scheduled to begin. Moreover, merely missing the bus could not be considered truancy where, as in this case, the officer did not know whether J.R. had already missed the bus, or whether he could have taken a bus at one of the multiple bus stops in the area or relied on some other means of getting to school that day.

The case will be sent back to trial, and J.R. could be retried. We'll keep you updated on what happens next. Until then, here's the Fourth District Court's decision on J.R.'s appeal:

Palm Beach - Fourth District Court Appeal Ruling

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Ray Downs
Contact: Ray Downs