What constitutes a valid police search? The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prevents the police from conducting unreasonable searches of you, your home, your vehicle, etc.
Once a search is allowed, though, the police have broad powers to investigate a scene. If authorized by a warrant, they may search any area specified by the warrant as thoroughly as they feel necessary. If the search is allowed because the police made an arrest, they may search any area that was under the individual’s control.
If an arrest relates to your vehicle, the police may search the entirety of the car. A locked container inside your vehicle may be searched as part of the officer’s investigation into the alleged crime.
Not all searches are valid and not all evidence gathered in a search can be used against you. If you face an open container or DUI charge, you may have the right to suppress some of the evidence. To have your case evaluated for free, contact us at (310) 862-0199.
Valid Searches of Vehicles
While warrants are a common method to perform a reasonable search of a home, they are less common for vehicles. However, this does not mean that police officers are free to search vehicles any time that they wish. Instead, officers are bound by certain limitations, such as the Carroll Doctrine.
There are three broad situations in which an officer may search your vehicle without needing to obtain a warrant.
- You were arrested for a crime after being pulled over or you were witnessed using the vehicle in a crime.
- The police have probable cause that your vehicle contains contraband or evidence of a crime, and the vehicle is likely able to change location (i.e., a car found driving on the road or recently parked in a parking garage).
- You consent to a search of your vehicle.
If any of these situations apply, officers may conduct a thorough search of your vehicle. They can search the passenger area of the vehicle, the trunk, and any locked containers inside.
Probable cause is a legal standard of suspicion that police officers must meet in order to conduct a search or initiate an arrest. In order to reach the level of probable cause, the police must possess specific facts that would lead a reasonable person to believe there is evidence of a particular crime.
For example, an officer may not have probable cause to initiate a DUI arrest simply because the driver was speeding. While speeding may be a sign of impaired driving, the officer would need additional facts that pointed to a DUI. Additional facts may include:
- An open container of alcohol on the passenger seat
- A strong smell of alcohol on the driver
- Slurred speech from the driver
Given any combination of these facts, a police officer could have probable cause to initiate a DUI arrest.
Until the early 1990s, there was a legal gray area regarding searching locked containers inside of vehicles. However, following California v. Acevedo, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was permissible for police officers to search a locked container inside a vehicle. The justices argued that the police still must have probable cause to believe that there is evidence or contraband contained within the locked container.
Open Alcohol Containers in Locked Containers
In California, it is illegal under Vehicle Code Section 23222 to have an open container of alcohol or marijuana in a car on a public roadway. In order to transport an open container, which is any receptacle containing alcohol or marijuana in which the container is open or has its seal broken, the container must be in an area that is not readily accessible by the driver. This may be a trunk, but it also can be inside the passenger compartment of the vehicle if it is in a locked container.
Suppressing Illegally Obtained Evidence
While there are many instances in which an officer can search your vehicle, they do not have blanket permission under the law to do as they please. If an officer conducts a search of your vehicle without probable cause or a valid search warrant, evidence may be excluded from any criminal proceedings.
Knowing what constitutes properly or improperly obtained evidence requires a keen understanding of the law. If you believe that evidence in a DUI or open container case was obtained improperly, you stand a better chance of having the evidence suppressed with a knowledgeable lawyer at your side.
If you’re interested in learning more about what a skilled DUI lawyer can do for you, call us today at (310) 862-0199.