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Do I Have to Let the Police Search My Car?

When the police want to search your vehicle during a traffic stop, the officers need a search warrant or the search needs to meet one of a narrow set of valid reasons to conduct a search. However, if you give the police consent to search your vehicle, they do not need a reason to search. 

If the police ask to search a vehicle, it is generally up to the owner or driver whether to give the police permission to search the vehicle. Some drivers worry that saying “no” will make it look like they are guilty. But if you say “yes” then it may be difficult to challenge any evidence the police find during the search, even if the evidence is not yours. 

Contact the experienced East Bay criminal defense lawyer Lynn Gorelick if you were arrested after a traffic stop. Your attorney will be able to investigate your arrest to identify possible defenses and where the police violated your constitutional rights. 

Rights Against Unreasonable Search and Seizure

Your constitutional rights give you protections against unreasonable search and seizure. This includes searching your home, your person, and your vehicle. However, this protection is not limitless. There are a number of situations where the courts have deemed it reasonable for the police to search your vehicle even without your consent. 

Consent to Search

The most common reason that police get to search a vehicle is to ask the driver for consent to search. If the driver consents, then the police do not need to meet any of the justification for the search. Consent basically gives police an open invitation to look around your vehicle for any evidence that may indicate criminal activity, including drugs, open containers of alcohol, stolen merchandise, or a weapon. 

The police may ask for permission without making it seem like you have a choice but you do. “You don't mind if I do a quick search of your car, do you?” is a request for consent. You can say no. 

When the Police Can Search Without Consent

There are a number of situations where the police are able to search a vehicle even without consent. Some of these include: 

  • Valid search warrant;
  • Probable cause that there is evidence of a crime; 
  • Search the area around an individual who the police reasonably believe have a weapon; 
  • Search the area around an individual being arrested and the police reasonably believe there is evidence of the related crime; or
  • The police do an inventory search after the vehicle is impounded.

Vehicle Search Warrant

The police generally need to get a valid search warrant issued by a judge. The warrant is specific to the area and basis for the search. For example, a search warrant that allows the police to search a suspect's home would generally not apply to a search of the vehicle. Similarly, a broad search warrant that does not specify the evidence sought or the specific criminal activity may not be valid. 

Probable Cause the Vehicle Has Criminal Evidence

The police may be able to search a vehicle if they have probable cause to believe the vehicle has evidence of a crime inside. This requires more than a general suspicion of criminal activity or a person acting suspiciously. For example, the police could not search a vehicle after pulling over a driver because the officer knows they are up to something or the driver looks like a criminal type. 

Alternatively, if the police see a driver in a known drug area exchange a small baggie for money to another person, the police may be able to make a traffic stop and search the driver for evidence of drugs. 

Plain View Exception

The plain view doctrine is an exception to the warrant requirement under the Fourth Amendment. If there is evidence of illegal activity or contraband in plain view, the police are generally able to seize the evidence. 

For example, the police make a traffic stop for a driver who ran a red light. While talking to the driver, the officer sees a liquor bottle sticking out from under the driver's seat. The alcohol bottle may indicate the driver is impaired or the driver has an open container of alcohol in the vehicle. This may allow the police to seize the bottle of alcohol under the seat even if the driver says he or she does not consent to the search. 

What happens if the police search my vehicle without my permission?

The police and prosecutors are not supposed to benefit from violating your constitutional rights. If the police gathered evidence illegally, your attorney can file a motion to suppress the illegally gained evidence. If the evidence is suppressed, it cannot be used in evidence in your case. 

For example, the police stopped a driver for speeding. The police ask the driver for permission to search the vehicle and the driver refuses. With no other exceptions apply, the police open the passenger door and open the glove box and find drugs and arrest the driver for possession of drugs. The driver's criminal defense lawyer would likely be able to suppress the drug evidence. If the prosecutor cannot use the drugs as evidence, the charges against the suspect would likely be dropped.

East Bay criminal defense attorney Lynn Gorelick has more than 35 years of defending clients against criminal charges in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties. If you need help after an arrest in California, contact East Bay criminal defense lawyer Lynn Gorelick today.

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