Although the Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable police searches of your vehicle following a traffic stop, it doesn't specifically state what type of search is unreasonable. However, vehicle searches conducted without a warrant can be broken down into four general categories:
- Probable cause. A law enforcement officer is allowed to search your vehicle if he has probable cause to believe there is incriminating evidence inside.
- Searches incident to arrest. If you're arrested following a traffic stop, an officer can conduct a search of your vehicle to look for weapons or evidence relating to the arrest. However, the weapons justification for a search is only valid if you're within reaching distance of the vehicle at the time of arrest. An officer can't search your car using a safety justification if you're already handcuffed in the back of a squad car.
- Consent to search. Barring other legal justification, an officer is allowed to search your car if you give him permission. However, your consent must be freely and voluntarily given. If you've been coerced into allowing the officer to search your car, the evidence obtained can't be used against you.
- Inventory search. After a DUI arrest, your vehicle may be impounded. When this happens, law enforcement officers can conduct a search to inventory the contents. The purpose of this type of search is to make sure any items in the car are accounted for and can be returned to the owner when the vehicle is released. However, officers can use any incriminating evidence they find as a result of this type of search.
Protecting Your Legal Rights
When you are stopped by a law enforcement officer, you must provide your name, driver's license, and vehicle registration card. You are not legally obligated to answer any other questions or to provide consent to search your vehicle. It's best to remain calm, assert your rights politely, and refrain from physically interfering with the officer's work. If appropriate, your attorney can later challenge the validity of the search.
To learn more, call to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation with T. Kevin Wilson.