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Cars seem like a personal and private place, but they are not given a lot of protection under the law.
Since cars are driven in public places and drivers use public roads, the courts allows vehicle searches under many circumstances.
1. Plain View
If police are in someone’s house and they see a piece of contraband out in the open, such as drugs on the dining room table, they can confiscate it and charge the homeowner with its possession even if they don’t have a warrant.
This is called the plain view exception to the warrant rule.
The plain view exception applies to vehicles the same way as it applies to homes.
If an officer pulls someone over and sees contraband, such as drug paraphernalia or a weapon, he can seize the item and hold the driver accountable for possession.
If the police seize an item under the plain view doctrine, they will most likely end up searching the entire vehicle.
This is because of another warrant exception, known as search incident to arrest.
2. Search Incident To Arrest
Usually police have to have a warrant to search personal property. Even though a vehicle is personal property, there are some exceptions to this rule, such as search incident to arrest.
If a person is arrested after a traffic stop, her car will be impounded and the police will search the vehicle (this is called an “inventory search”).
The inventory search includes writing a report listing all items located in the vehicle, and contraband located in the search can be used against the owner of the vehicle.
3. Potential Weapons
If the police pull someone over and have a reason to think that the driver or a passenger have a weapon, the police can search the driver, any passengers, and the cabin of the vehicle (meaning just about every part of the car besides the trunk).
There are a few ways the police may justify this type of warrantless search.
For example, if the officer calls in the license plate number and finds that the driver has multiple weapons charges or an a violent crime on his record, the officer can do a quick pat-down and basic search of the vehicle.
4. Consensual Searches
A driver can always agree to a police search, and they can also limit the areas that are searched.
For example, the driver can give a police officer permission to search the cabin of the car, but he can tell the officer that he does not have the driver’s consent to search the trunk, or any other limitation.
If the police do not have a warrant and do not otherwise have authority to search the vehicle, such limited consent is acceptable and the police must respect it.
Refusing any consent is usually a better idea than limited consent because if the police find anything at all in the main part of the car, it might give them probable cause of get a warrant for the rest of the car anyway.
If police request to search a vehicle and neither the driver nor the passengers limit or refuse the search, the police can search the entire vehicle.
5. Invalid Searches
Even though there are many ways that an officer can search a vehicle without a warrant, the general rule of warrants still applies.
If an officer does not have any reason to search a vehicle and he does so anyway, then any items the officer finds in the car cannot be used against the driver or passengers in court.
Also, even if the search was allowed but the reason for the traffic stop was unjustified (meaning, the officer didn’t have a real reason to pull the driver over), it is an invalid search.
For example, if an officer found a small amount of cocaine in the glove compartment of a vehicle after he pulled over a driver, and it is determined that the driver did not violate any traffic laws, then the cocaine cannot be used against the driver for possession charge and the case will be thrown out.
Likewise, even if the officer is allowed to conduct a search, he cannot exceed that scope of the search.
For example, if an officer makes a valid traffic stop and discovers that the driver has a past conviction of assaulting an officer, he would probably be justified in searching the driver and the interior of the vehicle for dangerous weapons.
However, if the officer takes the drivers wallet out of their pocket, looks inside, and finds a small amount of heroin, that heroin couldn’t be used in court against the driver because the officer was only allowed to search for weapons, and a weapon couldn’t fit inside of a wallet.
Only some people can file motions to suppress evidence discovered in a vehicle. The person seeking to suppress evidence must, at the time of the search, had an expectation of privacy in the vehicle.
If the owner of the vehicle was operating the vehicle at the time of the search, then they can definitely argue a motion to suppress.
If the person driving is authorized to be using the vehicle at the time of the search, then that person may file a motion to suppress. A person would certainly not have an expectation of privacy in a stolen car.
Contact The Law Offices Of M.J. Snyder Today
Contact the offices of Marni Jo Snyder to discuss your case. If items were located in your vehicle that led to charges being filed against you, our team will work hard to defend you.
Call 215-515-3360 today for a free consultation.