Florida Supreme Court Explains Hearsay and the Fellow Officer Rule - State v. Bowers

February 28, 2012

Evidence rules often play a crucial role in Florida criminal cases because they determine the information that a judge or jury will have before it in deciding on a case. In State v. Bowers, the state's Supreme Court weighed in on an important evidentiary dispute, limiting the state's ability to rely on one police officer's recollection of another's knowledge in fighting an effort to suppress certain evidence.

970702_police_line.jpgMichelle Bowers was arrested after a traffic stop and charged with marijuana and drug paraphernalia possession as well as DUI. At trial, she sought to suppress all of the evidence obtained as a result of the traffic stop, arguing that the stop was not based on probable cause.

The officer who initially pulled Bowers over didn't appear at a hearing on the motion to suppress. Instead the state called as a witness a second officer who was not present during the initial stop, but later appeared at the scene to assist in the DUI investigation and subsequent arrest. The second officer was asked to testify about the reasons why Bowers was originally pulled over. The county court overruled an objection by Bowers' attorney, who argued that this testimony amounted to inadmissable hearsay (testimony about something for which the witness has no direct personal knowledge, often based on another's statements). Nevertheless, the county court granted Bower's motion to suppress the evidence obtained from the stop.

The matter eventually arrived before Florida's Second District Court of Appeals which ruled that the second officer's testimony was inadmissable. In so doing, the Second District found that the Fourth District Court of Appeals' decision in Ferrer v. State - in which it held that, under the "fellow officer rule," an officer who appeared at the scene following a traffic stop and tested a driver for alcohol and drugs could testify that the initial officer told him that he observed the driver driving with an expired tag - was wrongly decided.

The Florida Supreme Court agreed with the Second District, holding that the fellow officer rule does not allow the second officer to testify as to what the first officer told him about why he stopped Bowers' car. It explained that the rule "was developed to assist officers investigating in the field to make arrests and conduct searches..." The rule accomplishes this goal by providing that "the collective knowledge of officers investigating a crime is imputed to each officer and one officer may rely on the knowledge and information possessed by another officer to establish probable cause," which generally must exist in order for an officer to stop a car, search a home or make an arrest.

Nevertheless, the fellow officer rule is "not a rule of evidence," the Court stated, quoting the Second District's decision. In other words, the rule allows an officer to make an arrest in the field based on knowledge obtained by other officers and to testify regarding knowledge that another officer possessed in order to justify the testifying officer's actions. It does not allow the officer to testify in court about another officer's knowledge in order to justify the other officer's actions. Accordingly, the Court upheld the Second District's decision and ruled that Ferrer was wrongly decided.

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