The 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects people from illegal search and seizure by the government. It protects your personal privacy and extends to the privacy of your home, your property, your car (to a lesser extent), and your place of business.
Search and seizure protections apply when:
- The police stop you and ask to search your purse, backpack, or luggage.
- The police knock on the door of your home or apartment and ask to enter.
- The police stop you when driving and then ask to search your car or trunk.
In most cases, if the police don’t have a warrant, they don’t have a right to enter or search but there are some exceptions. The “plain view” exception allows the police to arrest you if there is evidence of a crime in clear view – though they still can’t search further without a search warrant.
Warrantless Search of a Car
There is a reduced expectation of privacy in a car.
Police can search your car without a warrant if you give them consent to do so. When the police ask to search your vehicle, you can say NO. You don’t have to give them permission, but a lot of people do.
Police can search your car without a warrant if they have probable cause to believe there was a crime. What would qualify as probable cause?
- Seeing drug paraphernalia on the seat or smelling marijuana in the car would be probable cause.
- If the officer walked up to the car and overheard passengers talking about hiding drugs or other evidence, that would do it.
- If the police have a drug-sniffing dog that signals the presence of drugs, that would be probable cause.
In the context of an arrest, police can legally search a person and their vehicle for a weapon (the police are protecting themselves) or to preserve evidence. But this ‘search incident to arrest’ (SITA) principle only applies if the arrest itself is lawful.
And you must have been ‘in control” of the vehicle at the time to justify the search. Were you standing 5 feet away? Were you already in the back seat of the police car? They don’t have a right to search it because you don’t have the ability to destroy evidence or threaten them with a weapon.
That doesn’t mean they won’t find evidence in your car.
The police can legally search your car if you’ve been arrested, and your car is headed to the police impound lot. They must take an inventory of anything of value in the car to ensure that when your car is returned to you, it is returned with all your property intact. If that cursory search turns up evidence, it could be used against you IF the arrest was lawful. If you’ve been arrested after for a crime because of a warrantless search, talk to a lawyer at Lee and Wood right away. Evidence obtained from illegal police search and seizure is not admissible in court. Our criminal defense lawyers will talk with you about the circumstances of your arrest and your legal rights. Call the Fort Worth area criminal defense attorneys at 817-678-6771 or contact us online.