The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution reads, "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."
However, when it comes to vehicle searches specifically, there are several considerations to be aware of if a police officer has requested to a car search after a traffic stop. There are different circumstances based on the fact that a car is a mobile entity and there is a time consideration involved with the issuance of a warrant to search. Thus, Fourth Amendment protections concerning a vehicle search are fewer than they would be for a home.
When it comes to vehicles, keep in mind that police officers are trained to work around the search warrant requirement in ways that many would not expect.
Legal Vehicle Search Scenarios without a Warrant
Police vehicle searches are legal in these common scenarios:
- An officer determines “probable cause” to search your vehicle.
- Under certain circumstances where you are being arrested for committing a criminal act prior to, or during, the stop and evidence may be connected with the vehicle.
- An officer simply asks you during a traffic stop to allow them to search your vehicle and you consent.
What Is “Probable Cause”?
In this scenario, police officers are required to have “probable cause” to search your vehicle. Probable cause exists when there are facts or circumstances within a police officer's observable knowledge that would lead him/her to believe that you have, or may be in the process of, committing a crime.
Drugs and Alcohol
Solid examples of probable cause would be the officer notices the distinctive odor of illegal drugs and/or observes associated drug paraphernalia in plain view after a traffic stop. The same is true for observing an open container of alcohol and/or the driver is determined to be driving under the influence where the search can be conducted for evidence purposes.
Stolen property in plain view after a traffic stop may also allow for a probable cause search of your vehicle. Of course, just having items within your car doesn’t necessarily warrant probable cause. However, a trained officer may assess probable cause that would stand up in court based on observing a number of TV’s and/or other electronics, or even burglary tools, and the occupant’s responses during questioning.
Vehicle Search after an Arrest
If a driver is physically arrested and being detained from a circumstance of the traffic stop, then a search of the vehicle may be performed in the course of gathering case evidence.
An officer’s reasons for the search may include a belief that the arrestee may gain access to the vehicle after an arrest, the vehicle contains evidence related to the crime, or there is evidence of some other crime within the vehicle.
Simple Request for Vehicle Search
It's common for police of officers who have stopped a driver for a simple traffic infraction to ask for permission to search a vehicle. Simply put, if a police officer asks for permission to search your vehicle, you do not have to consent to a vehicle search. In fact, officers rarely ask for permission to search when they have legal justification.
Please keep in mind that it never pays to be rude or confrontational when declining to give police permission to search a vehicle, or during any other police encounter. Furthermore, there legal justifications for police vehicle searches that are not listed above, like officer safety situations and vehicle "inventories" in situations where a vehicle will be towed due to some police interaction (commonly as a result of a driving suspended charge).
If you feel your legal rights have been violated and an unlawful vehicle search has been conducted, you owe it to yourself to contact us at Smith Law Firm, PLC. We have over seventy combined years of criminal law experience, including numerous successful challenges to unlawful police searches. Give us a call today and set up a free consultation.