The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects individuals from unreasonable searches by police officers. The protection from unreasonable searches extends to your vehicle. As such, you can refuse to allow an officer to search through your car.
There are exceptions to this right, however. There are some circumstances in which an officer may be free to search your vehicle without needing your consent.
If an officer collected evidence improperly, you may be able to have the evidence removed from any criminal proceedings against you. To have an experienced lawyer evaluate your case and begin looking at the constitutionality of a search used against you, call (310) 862-0199. We will schedule your free consultation with a leading DUI lawyer today.
Refusing a Search
If you are stopped in your vehicle by the police, you are not required by law to allow them to search it. As long as you are not under arrest, or the officer does not possess a warrant that has been signed by a judge authorizing the search of your vehicle, you can inform the officer that you don’t consent to a search.
When you are stopped and asked if the officer can investigate your vehicle, you can politely but firmly say, “I do not consent to a search of my vehicle.”
An officer does not always need to ask you for permission to search a vehicle. A warrant, per the Fourth Amendment, can allow the officer to search your vehicle. Likewise, the officer may be allowed to search your car if they have an appropriate level of suspicion that you have committed a crime.
Levels of Suspicion
While the Fourth Amendment does offer broad protection from unreasonable searches, the definition of “unreasonable” is an ongoing legal debate. Despite the occasional ambiguity, there are broad levels of suspicion that surround a legal search.
On the most basic level, an officer must have some justification for stopping you. For example, an officer may stop you when you are driving if they believe you have committed a traffic infraction.
The standard for determining whether an officer has a right to stop you is known as reasonable suspicion. The police do not need to have witnessed you committing an offense to have reasonable suspicion.
If the officer has a reasonable suspicion that you may have played a part in a crime, they may conduct a pat-down of your outer clothing during a stop, which is known as a Terry stop. The purpose of the stop is to ensure that you don’t pose a danger to the officer and to assess your involvement in any potential crime. This is the extent of any search an officer may conduct with reasonable suspicion.
Probable cause is a higher standard that officers must meet in order to conduct an arrest or to search a person and their effects. If an officer views your car swerving and smells alcohol on your breath when they stop you, they likely have probable cause to arrest you for a DUI. As your vehicle could contain evidence related to the DUI, the police officer would have probable cause to search your vehicle for additional evidence.
Plain Sight Exception
An officer does not always need probable cause to search and seize an item in your vehicle. Thanks to the plain view doctrine, officers need only be able to see an illegal item in order to investigate and seize it.
Take a driver who was pulled over for speeding. If an officer can see an open bottle of alcohol on the passenger’s seat, that bottle may be taken as evidence for an open container infraction. Furthermore, the combination of speeding and an open container can constitute probable cause for a DUI arrest.
Officers without probable cause or a warrant may still be interested in searching your vehicle. While you have the right to refuse, you also have the right to consent. Once you have consented to a search, the officer is free to investigate your vehicle as they see fit. Evidence gained through such a search is as valid as evidence gathered with probable cause or a warrant.
Excluding Improperly Obtained Evidence
While there are many legal venues for an officer to obtain evidence against you, it is possible that there was a flaw in the procedure. If you refused a search and the officer still conducted one, any evidence gathered should not be used against you in any criminal proceeding. You or your lawyer can petition to have the evidence excluded from the proceedings by filing a motion to suppress.
If you have any concerns about the search of your car during a stop, particularly if the search led to an open container violation or DUI arrest, you deserve to have your rights protected. Call (310) 862-0199 to speak with a representative about scheduling your free consultation with an experienced DUI lawyer today.