The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution prevents the police from conducting searches and seizures that are unreasonable. This means that the police must generally have “probable cause” to search a car, after pulling over a driver for a moving violation or for speeding.

Probable cause means that there is a fair or decent probability that a search of the car will produce evidence of criminal activity. Under the law, having a mere reasonable suspicion, which is having concrete facts that there is criminal activity, is insufficient to justify the search.

When May the Police Pull Over A Driver?

The Fourth Amendment’s “reasonableness” requirement prohibits the police from stopping you and pulling you over for an arbitrary reason or no reason. The Fourth Amendment permits the police to pull over a vehicle if the driver is suspected of committing, or having committed, a traffic violation.

The police may pull over the vehicle only if they have “reasonable suspicion.” “Reasonable suspicion” means a reasonable belief, based on facts that are specific and concrete, that a crime has been committed, is being committed, or will be committed.

What May the Police Do Once They Have Stopped A Vehicle?

If the police pull over a vehicle based on reasonable suspicion, then they can conduct an “investigative stop.” During an investigative stop, the police may inquire as to reasons for a suspect’s behavior. For example, the police may question the driver as to why the driver appeared to periodically speed up above the speed limit.

The police may do this to confirm their suspicion of speeding. Once the police make the investigatory stop, the police must either issue a ticket, if their suspicion is confirmed, or must let the driver go, if the suspicion is dispelled. The police cannot pull over the driver for more time than is necessary to confirm the driver either has or has not broken the law.

The only circumstance under which police can conduct a search pursuant to an investigative stop, is when the police have reasonable suspicion that a suspect is armed and/or dangerous. Under such circumstances, the police may conduct a “pat-down” of the driver to remove weapons and other items that might be used to harm the officer.

When Can Police Search My Vehicle?

Having reasonable suspicion permits an investigative stop and issuance of a ticket, but not does not justify a search. Once the ticket has been written, the police need additional reasonable suspicion of something to justify keeping the vehicle stopped. To justify a search of the vehicle, the reasonable suspicion must develop into probable cause.

Probable cause means there is a “fair probability” the search will reveal evidence of a crime. Once officers have probable cause to believe a search will yield evidence of criminal activity, they can conduct the search. For example, if the police officer spots illegal drugs in the cupholder, not hidden, or an open container of alcohol. These would be examples of what can give the police probable cause to conduct an expanded search.

Where Can the Police Search in Your Car?

Once probable cause exists for a search, the search must be confined to those areas of the vehicle where the evidence of criminal activity might be found. Therefore, if the police have probable cause that evidence is in the trunk, then the police may search the trunk, but not the remainder of the vehicle.

In addition, if the person who is arrested is able to reach into the car to obtain a weapon, then the police may conduct a search of the entire area the suspect can conceivably reach for the weapon. Such as the glove compartment or the center console. However locations that are in plain sight, like the dashboard or cupholders, are easily searched.

When Can Police Search an Entire Vehicle?

Under certain circumstances, the police may search the entire vehicle, including the trunk. The police may, for example, have probable cause that one or more small bags of marijuana are contained in the car.

Since a bag of marijuana is small enough to be found anywhere in the car, including the trunk, the police may search the vehicle and the trunk. The police may also search the vehicle if the driver consents to the search. Keep in mind that the driver does not need to consent to the search.

Can the Police Search Other Vehicle Occupants?

If the police have arrested the driver, then it is possible for them to search other occupants in the vehicle. To do so, the police must have either reasonable suspicion or probable cause. If the police have reasonable suspicion that a passenger is armed and dangerous, then the passenger may be “patted down.” If the police have probable cause that evidence of a crime is on a passenger’s person, the police may search the passenger for that evidence.

What Happens if a Search is Illegal?

If it turns out that the police lacked probable cause to search a vehicle, or part of that vehicle, any evidence the search turns up must be excluded from criminal proceedings brought against a defendant.

The rule forbidding such evidence from being introduced at trial is known as the “exclusionary rule.” A criminal defendant must file a motion (a request for an order) before trial, known as a motion to suppress, to obtain an order to stop the introduction of such evidence at trial.

Do I Need the Help of a Lawyer for an Illegal Search?

If you believe you have been a victim of an unlawful search made after an investigative stop, then you should contact a criminal law attorney. An experienced criminal law attorney can assist you with filing a motion to suppress. This attorney can also represent you at hearings and at trial.