The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the police from conducting traffic stops if a reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct does not justify the stops. Vehicle searches must generally be justified by probable cause, with some exceptions. The police must have “reasonable suspicion” first to stop a car and then “probable cause” to search the car after stopping it.
In the case of speeding, the police can stop your car if they reasonably suspect you are committing a traffic violation. However, this does not give them the automatic right to search your car. The police must have probable cause to believe that a search will produce evidence of a crime before they can search.
In general, the police need a warrant to search your car unless they have probable cause to believe that the car contains evidence of a crime or if there are exigent circumstances, such as the presence of a weapon or the imminent destruction of evidence. However, if the police have already stopped your car for a traffic violation and observe evidence of a crime in plain view, such as drugs or contraband, they may search your car without a warrant.
Remember that you have the right to refuse a search of your car, but you should do so politely and respectfully. If the police conduct an unlawful search of your car, any evidence obtained during that search may be excluded from use in court.
When May the Police Pull Over A Driver?
The Fourth Amendment’s “reasonableness” requirement prohibits the police from stopping a person and pulling them over for an arbitrary reason or a reason that is not related to suspected criminal activity. The Fourth Amendment allows the police to pull over a vehicle only if the driver is suspected of having committed a traffic violation, such as speeding, or is otherwise engaged in criminal activity.
What May the Police Do Once They Have Stopped A Vehicle?
If the police pull over a vehicle because they have reasonable suspicion, they may then conduct an “investigative stop.” During an investigative stop, the police may inquire about the reasons for a driver’s behavior.
When Can Police Search My Vehicle?
Having reasonable suspicion permits an investigative stop and issuance of a ticket but does not justify a search of the person’s vehicle. Once the ticket has been written, the police need additional reasonable suspicion of criminal activity over and above the reason for the stop to justify holding the vehicle for more time and searching it.
Where Can the Police Search in Your Car?
Once the police have probable cause for a search, the search must be confined to those areas of the vehicle where the evidence of criminal activity is likely to be found.
This means that if the police have probable cause to believe that evidence of a crime is in the vehicle’s trunk, they may search the trunk but not the rest.
Similarly, if a person who is arrested can reach into the vehicle to obtain a weapon, then the police may search the entire area within the person’s reach for a weapon, which might include the glove compartment or center console. However, locations in plain sight, such as the dashboard or cup holders, can be searched because any evidence lying within plain sight can be seized. The police must have a valid reason to search and limit the scope of the search to the areas where evidence of criminal activity is likely to be found.
Can the Police Conduct a Pat-Down Search of the Driver or Passenger During a Traffic Stop?
One of the circumstances in which police can conduct a search after making an investigative stop is when the police reasonably suspect that the driver or a passenger in the vehicle is armed or dangerous.
If the police have a reasonable suspicion that the driver or a passenger in the vehicle is armed or dangerous, they may conduct a limited “pat-down” search of the driver or a passenger to remove weapons or other items that might be used to harm the officer. This is based on the “stop and frisk” principle established by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Terry v. Ohio.
However, the search must be limited to a pat-down of the person’s outer clothing, and the officer cannot search inside the person’s pockets or other personal items unless they feel an object that is immediately identifiable as contraband or a weapon.
What Other Circumstances Can Justify a Search of the Driver, Vehicle, or Passengers?
Other justifications for searches of the driver, the vehicle, or passengers include emergencies, plain sight, consent, plain smell, arrest, and inventory.
Here is a breakdown of the justifications for the different types of searches:
- Emergencies: If the police need to search the vehicle for a blanket or other item they need in a medical emergency, this could justify a vehicle search.
- Plain Sight: The police can seize evidence of a crime in plain sight in the vehicle.
- Consent: If the driver consents to a search, the police can conduct a search.
- Plain Smell: If the police can smell the odor of controlled substances, such as marijuana, they can search the vehicle.
- Arrest: If the police arrest the driver for any valid reason, such as a warrant outstanding for the driver’s arrest, they can also search the driver and the vehicle.
- Inventory: If the vehicle has to be impounded for a legitimate reason, the police can inventory its contents.
When Can Police Search an Entire Vehicle?
The police may be permitted to search an entire vehicle, including the trunk, if they have probable cause to suspect criminal activity, such as the transportation of controlled substances. The discovery of even a small amount of illegal drugs in plain view may also give police probable cause to search the entire vehicle.
However, a driver is not required to consent to a search, and the failure to give consent does not give the police probable cause to search. Other recognized justifications, such as an emergency or plain view, may also justify a search.
Can the Police Search Other Vehicle Occupants?
If the police have arrested the driver of a vehicle, they may search other occupants only if they have probable cause or another recognized justification. A pat-down search for concealed weapons may be conducted if the police reasonably suspect a passenger is armed and dangerous. A search for evidence of a crime may be conducted if the police have probable cause to believe that such evidence might be found on a passenger’s person.
What Happens if a Search is Illegal?
If a search is illegal, any evidence obtained from the search must be excluded from criminal proceedings. This rule is known as the “exclusionary rule.” To prevent the use of illegally obtained evidence at trial, a criminal defendant must file a motion to suppress.
Do I Need the Help of a Lawyer for an Illegal Search?
If you believe the police unlawfully searched your vehicle, you should contact an experienced traffic violation attorney. An attorney can analyze the facts of your case, assist you with filing a motion to suppress, and represent you at hearings and trials.