There's often great debate about whether or not police are legally allowed to search your car, and if so, exactly what circumstances warrant it. While you may think you're safe from a vehicle investigation as long as the police don't have a warrant, the laws surrounding this issue are confusing and sometimes ambiguous. In fact, it's not as uncommon as you might think for police to search a vehicle without a warrant, as there are several exceptions and loopholes that allow officers to do so.
Generally, the Fourth Amendment's safeguard against unlawful search and seizure makes random police car searches illegal. If you've been the subject of one of these searches and think your rights have been violated, it's essential that you get in touch with a Santa Barbara criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. Police searches are a serious matter, and your attorney may be able to review the evidence in your case and help you determine whether to file a motion to suppress illegally obtained evidence.
Examining When the Police May Search Your Vehicle Without a Warrant
It's first important to note that the police always have the right to search a vehicle if they have a lawful search warrant. A warrant is valid if it's signed by a judge, based on probable cause, and specifically describes the vehicle being searched. Absent a warrant, however, you may wonder when the police are allowed to search your vehicle. Consider the following exceptions:
You Grant the Police Permission
If an officer doesn't have a warrant, they may ask for your permission to search the vehicle. If you provide consent to a search without a warrant, anything found or recovered from within the vehicle may be used as evidence in court and may be used against you. Note that consent is only valid if given freely. It's illegal for the police to force or coerce a driver to consent in any way.
The Police Have Probable Cause
Although a car is still an individual's personal property, vehicles aren't as protected against searches as a home would be. Within the search warrant requirement, there's an automobile exception that permits authorities to search a person's vehicle if they have probable cause to do so. Probable cause is established when the police find enough evidence that a reasonable person would believe a crime has been, is being, or will be committed.
You're Arrested or Your Vehicle is Impounded
If the police arrest you, they may also search your vehicle. This is called a “search incident to arrest.” Likewise, the police may search your vehicle if it's impounded, which is called an inventory search. Anything inside the vehicle may be inventoried and used against you in court.
Something Illegal is in Plain View
Even if the police stop a person for a broken taillight, they have the right to seize an item and make an arrest if there's illegal contraband in plain view. For instance, if a bag of cocaine is sitting visibly in the passenger seat, the police have the right to a more invasive search. Likewise, plain view includes plain smell. So, if an officer gets a whiff of marijuana or alcohol when you roll down the window, you may expect an extended stop.
What's Classified as Probable Cause for a Vehicle Search?
Authorities have the right to search a vehicle if they have probable cause that there's evidence of a crime in the vehicle. Probable cause means that the police know specific facts, and these facts would justify the issuance of a warrant to search the car. For instance, probable cause may be based on reliable information that the car contains evidence of a crime, facts that the police personally observe or smell, and suspicious acts by the driver of the car or any passengers in the car.
Contact an Experienced Criminal Defense Lawyer at The Aron Law Firm
Defeating an improper search is often complicated, and failing to do so may mean jail time, fines, or other serious consequences. Fortunately, help is right around the corner. If you've been stopped by the police and have questions about your rights or need a defense strategy, contact the Santa Barbara criminal defense lawyers at Aron Law Firm today. Our legal team is well-versed in California search warrant defense laws and may help you avoid the consequences that stem from a conviction.
At the Aron Law Firm, we have experience helping clients with a variety of criminal charges. We want to make the legal process as straightforward as possible. To speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney, schedule a consultation by calling (805) 618-1768 or completing our online contact form today.