While a personal vehicle seems like a place that should receive a high level of protection from government searches, it receives much less protection than a home and can be searched without a warrant under certain circumstances.
1. Search Incident to Arrest
Generally, police should have a warrant to search personal property. While 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 legal traffic stop, her car will be impounded and an inventory search conducted. 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.
2. Plain View
If police enter a home and see a piece of contraband out in the open, they may confiscate the item and charge the homeowner with its possession even in the absence of a warrant.
This is known as the plain view exception to the warrant rule. The plain view exception applies to vehicles in much the same manner as it applies to homes.
If an officer conducting a traffic stop sees contraband such as drug paraphernalia or a weapon, he has a right the right to seize the items in view and hold the defendant accountable for the related possession charges.
If the police seize an item under the plain view doctrine, they will most likely end up searching the entire vehicle.
This is because the contraband seized under plain view will provide police with probable cause to arrest the driver of the vehicle or passengers, and as discussed above, once the driver of a vehicle is placed under arrest, police have the authority to do an inventory search of the contents of the vehicle.
3. Consensual Searches
If the driver of a vehicle consents to a search when requested by police, then he loses the protection of the warrant requirement.
A driver can limit the areas the police search. For example, the driver could say “You can search the cabin but I don’t consent to a search of 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.
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.
4. Potential Weapons
If the police conduct a traffic stop and reasonably suspect that the driver or a passenger have a weapon, the police can search the driver, any passengers, and the cabin of the vehicle.
There are a few ways the police may justify this type of warrantless search.
For example, if the officer does a quick screen for warrants and finds that the driver has multiple weapons charges or an a violent crime on his record, the officer may do a quick pat-down and basic search of the vehicle.
A search based upon suspicion of concealed weapons does not permit the officer to look in the trunk or search areas where a weapon could not be stored.
5. Invalid Searches
If an officer searches a vehicle after an unjustified traffic stop or when the search does not fit into one of the exceptions above, it is an invalid search.
This means that the officer was not authorized to search the vehicle and, therefore, and evidence obtained during the search cannot be used against the driver or passengers in court.
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 driver cannot be penalized for possession of cocaine.
Likewise, even if the officer is allowed to conduct a search, he cannot go beyond 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 his pocket, looks inside, and finds a small amount of heroine, it would be inadmissible because the officer was only allowed to search for weapons, and it is not reasonable that weapons would be located in someone’s wallet.
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