Can Police Search My Trunk?

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Overview of Police Searches

The 4th Amendment of the Constitution protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures. The protection against unreasonable searches and seizures extends to people and property, and applies in places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Generally, before conducting a search, police need a warrant. Before a search warrant may be issued, the 4th Amendment requires the officer to have probable cause. Thus, where someone has a reasonable expectation of privacy, the police need a warrant before they can conduct a search.

However, there are a handful of notable exceptions:

Note that the search requirement is lower for automobiles. If police have probable cause that a car has contraband or evidence of a crime, they may search parts and containers of the car where they may discover that evidence.

Can Police Search My Trunk without a Warrant?

Yes. However, they can only do so in a couple of circumstances. The first is if the defendant consents to search. The second, and more common, is when the police develop probable cause that the trunk contains evidence of a crime.

As a general rule, probable cause will essentially give police the ability to search the entire car. While there are a few wrinkles to this rule, for all intents and purposes, probable cause is all the police need.

What Is Probable Cause and How Is It Formed?

The exact definition of probable cause will vary by jurisdiction. As a general definition, probable cause is specific and articulable facts that point to evidence of a crime being committed or about to be committed. The facts and situation must be of such a nature that an objective, reasonable person would believe criminal activity is afoot.

With respect to trunks, police may develop probable cause to search in a myriad of ways. A dog sniff may alert them to the possible presence of drugs. Likewise, small bags and digital scales may also lead the police to believe that a large quantity of narcotics may be found not only in the passenger compartment, but in the trunk as well.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

If you have been pulled over and have a question concerning a search that was conducted on your automobile, you should strongly consider contacting a criminal defense lawyer immediately. A criminal conviction has serious consequences, and only an experienced attorney can effectively challenge a search.

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Last Modified: 06-22-2015 10:36 AM PDT

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