A police search of your car is legal if 1) you give consent, 2) the police have probable cause to search your car, 3) the search occurs immediately after you have been arrested for a traffic violation (and other conditions exist), or 4) the search is conducted during an inventory of your vehicle after police impound it.
If police performed an illegal car search during a traffic stop and charge you with a crime, any evidence found during the search can’t be used against you in court.
“Reasonable Suspicion” is Required Before Police Can Pull You Over for a Traffic Stop
A police officer can’t pull you over for a traffic stop unless he has “reasonable suspicion” that illegal activity has occurred or is occurring. Reasonable suspicion to justify a traffic stop can be something as simple as a broken taillight, speeding, or any other type of traffic violation.
If the police officer scans your license plate and sees that you have a warrant, expired registration, or a suspended license, those all qualify as reasonable suspicion for the police officer to pull you over.
A Police Officer Needs “Probable Cause” to Search Your Car Without a Warrant
If a police officer has reasonable suspicion to pull you over for a traffic stop, he can search the passenger compartment of your car without your consent, and without a warrant, if he has “probable cause” to believe that the vehicle contains contraband or other evidence of a crime.
The “probable cause” requirement can be satisfied in various ways: the police officer might smell marijuana, he might observe that the driver is behaving in a nervous or suspicious manner, or the police officer could see a bag of weed or a joint sitting in plain view in the car.
There is an “Automobile Exception” to the 4th Amendment Protection Against Unreasonable Searches
The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures by requiring police to have a warrant to arrest someone in their own home, unless they believe evidence of a crime is about to be destroyed or the police officer is in “hot pursuit” of a fleeing felon. Police officers must also have a warrant to search the premises of a third party for a suspect.
There are several exceptions to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement, including the “automobile exception,” which allows a police officer to search your car without a warrant in certain situations.
When Can Police Search Your Car?
Here are some situations in which a police officer can legally search your vehicle:
1) The police officer has a warrant to search your vehicle. (A police officer can’t obtain a search warrant unless he convinces a judge that he has probable cause for the search.)
2) You consent to the search.
3) The police officer smells marijuana when you roll down your car window, thus giving him probable cause to search your car without a warrant.
4) You are arrested during a traffic stop, which gives the police the right to conduct a “search incident to arrest” if certain conditions exist. (The search is limited to the area immediately surrounding the person where he might grab a weapon, escape, or destroy or hide evidence.)
5) The cop sees a bag of marijuana or a joint in plain view in your car, which gives him probable cause to search.
6) As a result of a traffic stop, the police decide to tow your vehicle to the impound lot, which gives the police the opportunity to conduct an inventory of your car.
7) The police bring a drug-sniffing dog who “alerts” to something in the passenger compartment or trunk of your car, which gives the police probable cause to search.
If you are the subject of any of the legal searches listed above and drugs are found in your car, those drugs are admissible evidence that can be used against you in court.
You Can Refuse to Let Police Search Your Car
The police will never tell you this, but you have the right to refuse to consent to a search of your vehicle. When the police officer asks if he can search your car, calmly reply, “No, I do not consent to a search. Am I free to leave?”
If you refuse to give consent to a search of your car, the police can go ahead and search your vehicle anyway, but only if they have probable cause to search, if it’s a search incident to arrest, if they are conducting an inventory of your car after impounding it, or if they obtain a search warrant.
Please note: You can refuse to consent to the search, but you do not have the right to physically resist the police officers when they search your car.
Drugs Found as a Result of an Illegal Search Can’t be Used Against You at Trial
In situations where the police officer has conducted an illegal search of your vehicle, any drugs discovered as a result of the search are not admissible as evidence at trial. You will need to hire a criminal defense attorney to investigate whether the search was illegal and, if it was, your attorney can keep this evidence from being used against you in court.
An Attorney May be Able to Get Your Drug Charges Reduced to a Lesser Offense
If the search was legal, your attorney may be able to negotiate a plea-bargain with the court to get the charges reduced to a lesser offense and keep the drug conviction off your criminal record. The outcome will depend on which court your case is being prosecuted in, your criminal history, and the details of your case.
If you have been charged with possession of marijuana or drug paraphernalia, call St. Louis attorney Andrea Storey Rogers at (314) 724-5059 to discuss your case and get a price quote for legal representation, or email Andrea at [email protected]