Can Police Search My Trunk?

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 When Can Police Conduct a Search?

The 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution protects citizens from being subject to unreasonable searches and seizures. These protections extend to individuals and their property.

These protections apply in places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy. The 4th amendment limits when and how law enforcement may conduct a search of an individual’s:

  • Home;
  • Papers;
  • Effects; or
  • Physical person.

It is important to note that the 4th Amendment only protects against unreasonable searches. In order for a search to be considered reasonable, there are certain procedures in place that law enforcement is required to follow.

Part of these required procedures includes obtaining a search warrant. Search warrants are orders that are signed by judges which authorize law enforcement to search a specific location for specific items that are believed to be connected to their criminal investigation.

In order to obtain a search warrant, law enforcement is required to provide probable cause. Probable cause is the reasonable belief that the individual has committed or will commit a crime or another violation.

There are four categories which would likely provide a law enforcement officer with the ability to perform a lawful arrest or to perform a search, including:

  • Observation. The law enforcement officer’s observation may provide information which may be used to establish probable cause. This may include what the officer may:
    • Hear;
    • See;
    • Smell; or
    • Feel;
  • Circumstantial evidence. The officer may rely on indirect evidence which implies a crime occurred but does not directly prove it;
  • Expertise. A law enforcement officer may use their training and expertise to identify certain indications of criminal activity, such as:
    • Movements;
    • Gestures;
    • Preparations; or
    • Tools; and
  • Information. The officer may utilize information which they have obtained from reliable sources to establish probable cause, including:
    • Statements by witnesses;
    • Receiving information from an informant; or
    • Responding to a call made to law enforcement.

If probable cause is not present, a criminal search of an individual’s person, property, or belongings will be considered unreasonable. If this occurs, anything that the search revealed will likely not be admissible against the defendant.

In order for reasonable belief to exist, there has to be factual evidence to support that suspicion. In general, probable cause requires more than mere suspicion that an individual committed the crime but does not require enough information to prove that the individual is guilty of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

The belief is required to be based on factual evidence and not on a simple suspicion. Law enforcement cannot request a search warrant just because.

When Can Police Search Without a Warrant?

It is important to be aware, however, that not all law enforcement searches require a warrant prior to being conducted without violating an individual’s 4th Amendment rights. There are certain specific circumstances in which it is legal for law enforcement to conduct a warrantless search.

There are certain exceptions which include but may not be limited to:

  • Exigent circumstances, such as ongoing emergencies;
  • A person consents to a warrantless search;
  • The evidence is in plain view and is clearly visible;
  • The search is administrative, for example, to board an airplane;
  • Stop and frisk, or an over-the-clothes pat-down if the police have probable cause; and
  • The search is in relation to a lawful arrest.

Can Police Search the Trunk of My Car Without a Warrant?

The requirements for the search of a vehicle are lower than in other situations. If law enforcement has probable cause to believe that an individual’s vehicle contains evidence of a crime or contraband, they may search all areas of the vehicle in order to obtain the evidence.

This may include opening any containers which are located within the vehicle. It is important to note, however, that reasonable suspicion alone does not provide law enforcement with the power to search the vehicle.

Law enforcement cannot search an individual’s vehicle if they stop them for a moving violation unless they have probable cause to do so or the driver has provided consent to the search. Probable cause for a vehicle search may be supported by the law enforcement officer’s initial reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

Probable cause for a vehicle search may be based upon the law enforcement officer’s additional suspicions, which may include, but are not limited to:

  • The officer’s personal observations;
  • Another officer’s observations;
  • An informant’s tip; and
  • Information that the driver or passenger provides to the officer.

It is also important to note that probable cause may be supported by evidence which the law enforcement officer sees in plain view in the vehicle, for example, drug paraphernalia. If a law enforcement officer stops a vehicle for a moving violation alone, they are not permitted to search the trunk of the vehicle without a warrant unless the driver consents or the officer develops probable cause that the trunk may contain evidence of a crime.

One specific example of when a trunk may be searched without a search warrant includes if a vehicle is stolen in connection with another crime. Law enforcement is not required to obtain a warrant to search the stolen vehicle before returning it to its rightful owner.

What Else Should I Know About Probable Cause?

If a law enforcement officer pulls over an individual and their suspicions rise to the level of probable cause that evidence of a crime might be found in the passenger side compartment, the officer is not permitted to search the trunk without a search warrant or additional sufficient probable cause. A law enforcement officer would make an assessment at the scene regarding the existence of probable cause.

Because of this, whether or not a search warrant will be needed will depend upon the facts of each unique situation. Exactly what constitutes probable cause can vary by jurisdiction.

Generally, probable cause refers to specific and articulable facts which indicate that a crime has been committed or will be committed. The facts surrounding the situation are required to be of such a nature that any objective and reasonable individual would believe there was evidence of criminal activity.

Specifically related to the trunk of a vehicle, law enforcement may develop probable cause to search the trunk in several different ways. For example, a drug-sniffing dog could alert the officer to the possible presence of drugs. Another example may be if paraphernalia was in plain view that would cause the officer to believe that the trunk contains additional evidence.

Do I Need an Attorney for Assistance With Police Searches?

It is essential to have the assistance of a criminal defense attorney for any issues, questions, or concerns you may have related to a police search. It is very important to ensure that your 4th Amendment rights are protected.

If your vehicle was searched by law enforcement, it is important to contact your attorney as soon as possible. Your attorney can review your case, determine if the search was legal, and advise you regarding your legal rights and defenses.

Your attorney will also represent you if you are required to appear in court. It is important to be aware that you can refuse the request to search your vehicle if the officer does not have a warrant or further probable cause.


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