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Can the police legally search your car?

On Behalf of | Nov 23, 2021 | Drug Charges

There’s a lot at stake when drug charges are levied against you. A criminal conviction, after all, can affect nearly every aspect of your life, from your freedom to your ability to obtain gainful employment and stable housing.

With so much on the line, you need to know how to aggressively defend yourself against the prosecution’s claims of illegal wrongdoing. This is true even if the evidence seems stacked against you, which is often the case when narcotics are discovered during a vehicle search after a traffic stop. But can the police really search your vehicle for drugs?

The reasonable suspicion standard

The first step in this analysis is to look at the traffic stop itself. Before law enforcement can make a traffic stop, they must have articulable reasonable suspicion that a criminal offense has occurred. This reasonable suspicion is a lower standard than probable cause and can be something as small as a broken taillight or something as serious as indications of driving while intoxicated. Regardless of the circumstances, though, the police have to be able to articulate facts that support their reasonable suspicion. If there are no articulable facts to support the stop, then any subsequent stop may be deemed illegal and any gathered evidence suppressible.

The search itself

Generally speaking, you have a Constitutional right against illegal searches and seizures. This means that under ordinary circumstances, the police have to obtain a search warrant before they can search your vehicle. However, there are exceptions to the warrant requirement. For example, the police can simply ask for your consent and, if you give it, they can freely search your car without a warrant.

The biggest exception to the warrant requirement, though, is probable cause. Here, the police have reason to believe that incriminating evidence can be found within the vehicle. This means that there should be sufficient evidence for the police officer to obtain a warrant if he or she were to seek one. Again, the facts supporting probable cause have to be specific and articulable. Tips received from sources, incriminating behavior, incriminating statements, and evidence in plain view can all lay the framework for a probable cause finding. Just keep in mind that if this issue goes before a court, a judge is going to look at the totality of the circumstances to see if the officers acted reasonably.

Another exception to the warrant requirement is a search incident to arrest. Here, law enforcement is authorized to search you and your vehicle if you are arrested. In most cases, your vehicle is searched so that it can be “inventoried,” but that doesn’t stop the police from using any incriminating evidence against you.

Protecting your rights

Although there are a number of exceptions to the warrant requirement, you have strong protections when it comes to having your vehicle searched. To start, you should never consent to a search, regardless of how law enforcement frames it. Second, make sure that you carefully analyze the facts of your traffic stop. If you can prove that there was no legal pretext for the traffic stop that led to the search of your vehicle, then it doesn’t really matter what the police found in your car. It might all be suppressible. Last, be sure to analyze whether there was actual probable cause to search your vehicle. The police can get creative in justifying their reasons for conducting a probable cause search, but you shouldn’t just take their word for it.

We know that facing drug charges can be stressful and downright scary given the stakes involved. That’s why strong criminal defense teams like ours stand ready to assist in building compelling defense strategies that seek to protect the rights and futures of those who have been accused.