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Welcome Incoming Freshmen: How to Avoid Getting Arrested in Gainesville

Posted by on in Florida Criminal Law
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August marks the month when new freshmen students invade the streets of Gainesville, Florida.  It is a time of excitement and growth for many young people who are often experiencing their first taste of freedom from parental constraints.  For many new students and their parents it is easy to mistakenly view Gainesville as a student friendly town where local police agencies are surely tolerant and forgiving in their enforcement of the criminal laws of the State of Florida.  In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.  The reality is that our local law enforcement agencies, including the Gainesville Police Department (GPD), University of Florida Police  Department (UPD) and the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office (ASO), are notoriously intolerant of student misconduct.  Consequently, Gainesville is one of the easiest college towns in America for a student to get arrested.  The purpose of this blog is to educate incoming students, in hopes that they can avoid  falling victim to the police forces that run the streets and bars of Gainesville, Florida.

Do not for one second harbor the belief that law enforcement in Gainesville, Florida will not arrest you for engaging in technically illegal conduct that students across American engage in.   Do not for one second believe that law enforcement will give you a “break” and overlook the enforcement of seemingly minor law violations.  Having been a criminal defense attorney in Gainesville, Florida, for more than twenty-five years, I’ve seen hundreds of good students with impeccable academic records arrested and carted to jail for conduct that was over looked and tolerated in the 1960's and 1970's.  This blog will list the seemingly minor law violations you are most likely to be arrested for in Gainesville, Florida, as a student at the University of Florida or Sante Fe College.

Underage Possession of Alcohol

I know at age eighteen you are old enough to fight (and die)  for your country, but in the State of Florida, you can not legally possess alcohol until you are twenty-one years of age.  This means that incoming freshmen and most undergraduate students, can not legally drink or possess alcoholic beverages.  For more details on this ridiculous criminal law read  “Understanding Florida’s Underage Drinking Law”.   All Gainesville law enforcement agencies vigorously enforce this law.   We may have hundreds of unsolved burglaries and robberies in Gainesville, Florida, but our local agencies continue to invest significant resources by sending multiple law enforcement officers into the downtown and mid-town bars many evenings, especially Thursday through Saturday. 

Local police officers are inside the Gainesville bars, some in uniform and some in street clothes.  When they see a young person who perhaps appears to be below the age of twenty-one they will ask for identification, detain that person in handcuffs and arrest that person.  Suddenly you will find yourself facing the prospect of having a criminal record.  Be smart!  If you are less than twenty-one years of age don’t get caught in public with an alcoholic beverage in your hand.  Trust me, Gainesville cops will not give you a break.

Possession of a Fraudulent Driver’s License or Altered Identification

This crime goes hand in hand with the crime of underage drinking.  If one gets arrested for underage drinking, law enforcement will do a “search incident to arrest”.   The police who work the bar detail know persons that are drinking underage usually have a fake identification card so the first thing they will search is one’s wallet or purse.  This may seem like a minor law violation, except that in Florida the possession of a fake or fraudulently manufactured driver license or identification card is a third degree felony!  See Florida Statute 322.212.  There is a misdemeanor version if the license or identification is correct except for the date of birth indicated, but the vast majority of fraudulent identifications I’ve seen can lawfully be charged as felonies.  By the way, a third degree felony carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $5000 fine and, if charged, you will be booked into jail.

Possession of an “Open Container” of an Alcoholic Beverage

This is a Florida football game day favorite of local Gainesville law enforcement agencies.  It is a violation of law within the city limits of Gainesville to possess an alcoholic beverage in any bottle, can, glass, or cup, other than an original unbroken sealed container in any of the following places: publicly owned park or recreation area, any school property, downtown plaza, public streets, sidewalks, public or semi public parking facilities and Florida Field (except in the executive suite boxes).  See our blog “Drinking Alcohol in Public: Unlawful in Gainesville” for more detailed information on this law violation.   The real twist in this local law violation is that the law enforcement officer has the complete unbridled discretion to charge this law violation as a crime or as a civil infraction.  If a law enforcement officers decides to, he/she can even take you to jail for an “open container” violation.  Bottom line, if a law enforcement officer catches you with an “open container” of alcohol and thinks you’ve been rude or doesn’t like the way you look, he can charge you with a crime and take you to jail.

Driving Under the Influence

If one drives a car in the Gainesville, Florida, area and is stopped for an alleged traffic infraction after the sun goes down, the driver should expect that the law enforcement officer conducting the stop is going to be suspicious that the motorist has been drinking and driving.  If the driver has a wrist band on from a club or bar, he or she will be directed to exit the vehicle and a DUI investigation will be initiated.   Gainesville cops have an unnatural ability to “detect the odor of an alcoholic beverage” and they just seem to smell alcohol on almost every one stopped after midnight in the Gainesville, Florida area.  Once a Gainesville area law enforcement officer starts a “DUI investigation”, the truth is, that officer has probably already decided that you are going to be arrested.  They just want you to first perform a few road side tricks on video to increase the likelihood of a DUI conviction.  Bottom line is this, take the wrist band off when you leave the club or bar and if you have had anything to drink, don’t get behind the wheel of a motor vehicle.  Click here for more information about the crime of DUI.

Possession of Marijuana (pot, weed or cannabis)

I know it’s legal in the States of Colorado and Washington.  I know former presidents smoked pot in college.  I know it shouldn’t be illegal.  According to the Gainesville Sun, even Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell admits she smoked pot in college.   Yes, I know more than 50% of Americans think it should be legal but, trust me, the drug war is alive and well in Gainesville, Florida. 

Hey it’s not the 1970's anymore.  If you smoke pot in or near a public place in Gainesville and a law enforcement officer “smells it” you will be arrested.  Actually it’s worse than that.  Did you know that law enforcement officers can lawfully search your vehicle without a search warrant based upon the perceived smell of that sweet ganja bud stashed under the seat of your car?  Did you know that our local law enforcement officers have a super human ability to smell “fresh” marijuana or the “smell of recently burned cannabis”.  For some reason local law enforcement seems to smell marijuana more often if the person is a minority.  Read this article about the wide racial disparity in marijuana arrests.  Again, be forewarned, smoking cannabis is illegal.  Even though this is a college town, don’t expect our local law enforcement agencies to give you a break.   There may be more tolerance in some college towns for marijuana smoking students, but not here in good ole Gainesville, Florida.

Much can be said about the benefits of attending the University of  Florida and living in Gainesville.  One thing is for sure, however, our local law enforcement agencies vigorously enforce the laws of the State of Florida.   Don’t be lulled into the mistaken belief that the Gainesville law enforcement community is “liberal” or tolerant of student law violations.  Be careful and responsible while you enjoy your college experience.

Michael Buchanan is a practicing criminal defense attorney in Gainesville, Florida, with more than 25 years experience defending people accused of criminal misconduct. He is a former president of the Eighth Judicial Circuit chapter of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He is a member of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Read detailed professional biography here.