Friday, January 7, 2011

The Police Searched My Car! Can They Do That?!

Clients, friends, family, waitresses at the City Cafe - people ask me, as a criminal lawyer, this all the time. And, it's a good question. The police usually have a basic understanding of what they can and can't legally do, but the average citizen typically has no clue when a peace officer is over-stepping the protections and limitations of the Constitution. Consider this a crash course courtesy Southern Justice.

The most common scenario is as follows:

You get pulled over for violating a traffic law - speeding, improper lane change, driving on a sidewalk, so on. You prepare to offer tears, excuses, whatever it takes to get out of a ticket. The officer asks for your license, registration, and/or proof of insurance. Then, she inquires: "Mr. Watson, do you mind if I look around inside your car?"

Know this: absolutely nothing prevents the officer from asking if he may search your vehicle. But - and here's the kicker - you may say no. Refuse. "I do mind if you search." "No. You may not look around." Probably best to soften it up a bit. Be polite. But, you would be amazed at the number of drug charges and DUI indictments that arise because the defendant consented to a search of his vehicle.

Now, here's the second most misunderstood fact concerning a vehicle search - the officer does not need a warrant to search the vehicle. Why? According to our US Supreme Court, vehicles are quick and mobile, and you and I simply don't expect what we do and carry in them to be that private (Carroll and Acevedo). So, no warrant needed; all the officer needs is "probable cause." To the best of my understanding, "probable cause" exists whenever the officer wants it to. Seriously, it exists if a reasonable person could believe that there is a "fair probability" of criminal activity based on the totality of the circumstances (Gates). In other words, if the sheriff smells marijuana, sees a pipe or syringe on the seat, or hears the high school senior in the backseat yelling "Hide the beer!," he likely has "probable cause" to search the vehicle.

So, you're informed! Next time you make a mistake while behind the wheel and see blue lights in your rearview, you'll be ready. And, if not, give me a call. My best.

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