The Constitution protects Americans against illegal search and seizure. Most people own automobiles but are not aware of when it is lawful for the police to search their vehicles. In many cases, police officers have no right to search a vehicle during a routine traffic stop, however unwarranted searches can and do occur. These searches include both the vehicle’s interior as well as the trunk.
Police officers are not responsible for informing the vehicle’s occupants of their rights to refuse an illegal search, nor are they required to tell you if and when they can make a permissible search.
In order for the police to search your home, property, or vehicle, they must obtain a warrant. This means that they must prove probable cause to a higher authority. There are, however, certain circumstances wherein searches without a warrant are permissible by law:
- Consent searches – If a citizen voluntarily agrees to a search, they waive their Fourth Amendment rights (the right to be protected against unreasonable search and seizure). Anything found in the vehicle from this search can be used as evidence against a defendant.
- Plain view rule – If there is something illegal or contraband in plain view from the outside of the vehicle, the police officer is entitled to conduct a search.
- Incident to arrest – If a motorist is arrested for DWI, authorities are permitted to perform a vehicle search.
- Exigent circumstances – If the police officer feels that they, or bystanders are at risk, or evidence is in danger of being destroyed, it is lawful to conduct a search.
- Probable cause – If the police officer has reason to believe that a crime has been or is about to be committed, a warrant-less search is permissible.
Each citizen of the United States is assured a reasonable expectation to privacy. Illegal search and seizure is a direct violation of your fundamental constitutional rights. Please make sure that you are aware of what is and is not permissible by law, and exercise your rights appropriately.