In our last post we mentioned that it is important for motorists to have a basic understanding of their rights during traffic stops. First of all, it should be well understood that motorists do have an expectation and a right to privacy in their vehicle—albeit a lower one than applies to homes—and when officers fail to respect privacy rights, there can be legal consequences for prosecutors attempting to bring criminal charges based on the investigation.
Unlike personal residences, police do not generally need a warrant to search a vehicle, sometimes warrants are obtained anyway. Officers are technically able to search a vehicle whenever they have probable cause to believe it contains evidence of a crime. For instance, if an officer develops probable cause to believe a motorist is high and that there are drugs in the car, he or she may decide there is probable cause to conduct a vehicle search and there is not an absolute need for a warrant. There must, however, be legitimate probable cause.
In addition to the probable cause search, there are several other situations where an officer may legally search a vehicle without obtaining a warrant. One of these is when the driver gives the officer consent to conduct a search. That consent can be revoked at any time, though, and officers must respect a revocation. Another situation is when the officer has reason to believe that it is necessary to search the vehicle for their own protection. Police are also legally able to search a vehicle upon making an arrest.
As can be seen, officers have a significant amount of discretion to search vehicles. That being said, there are certain limitations they must abide by even when conducting a legal search, particularly pertaining to the scope of the search. Officers are not infallible in applying the rules and when something goes wrong it is important to work with an experienced criminal defense attorney to ensure that one’s rights are protected.
Source: Findlaw, “When Can the Police Search Your Car?,” Accessed April 1, 2015.