Police officers don’t just enforce the law when they witness a crime in progress. They also help collect evidence so that state prosecutors can do their jobs. Police officers frequently find evidence in motor vehicles that can help build criminal cases related to property offenses, drug crimes or even violent criminal activity.
Many officers are, therefore, quite eager to look through a vehicle when they conduct traffic stops. Drivers need to know their rights if they want to protect themselves from unreasonable police conduct that could lead to unfair criminal prosecution.
What are the circumstances that allow police officers to lawfully search someone’s vehicle?
With official permission
There are two types of permission that can give a police officer the necessary authority to search a vehicle. Obviously, if they go to court and obtain a warrant, the judge’s permission for the search is typically all they require. However, many officers search vehicles without a warrant by getting permission from the vehicle’s owner or driver instead. They casually ask to search and then continue doing so until they find something that could justify the arrest of the driver. Motorists who decline to permit searches can sometimes protect themselves from frivolous prosecution.
With probable cause
Sometimes, there are clear indicators of criminal activity that police officers readily identify during the traffic stop. Perhaps, for example, they can smell drugs in the vehicle or see what looks like an unsecured weapon in the backseat. That can give them the probable cause they need to search the vehicle. When officers have an articulable suspicion about specific criminal activity, they can use that as a justification to search the vehicle for proof of that crime. As a final note, police officers can also search vehicles when they impound them or take them into state custody. Officers typically need to check the vehicle carefully and create an inventory of what they found in the vehicle as part of the impound process.
When a situation does not involve police legally taking possession of a vehicle, establishing probable cause, securing a warrant or getting permission from a driver, then the search they conducted may have been illegal. Identifying improper searches could eventually provide the basis for someone’s future criminal defense strategy if they end up facing charges.