Let’s say you’re driving home after a night at the bar and you see the flashing lights behind you. The police officer pulls you over, walks up to the window and asks for your license and registration. The officer asks some questions about your drinking, conducts some field sobriety tests, and has you blow into a breath-test machine. At this point, the officer has decided to arrest you for DWI. However, what if you have some other items in your vehicle (say, drugs or guns) that could lead to further trouble. When can a police search your trunk or other compartments of your vehicle? Here is the typical process for determining whether the officer can search your vehicle.
Fourth Amendment Rights
Under the 4th Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, police typically need some legal basis in order to conduct a search of compartments of a vehicle. The basis varies depending on the factual situation, but here are a few ways in which an officer could search your vehicle:
A common method of conducting a search involves the owner’s consent. If an officer asks to search your trunk and you say “sure,” the search will likely be proper as long as you weren’t unduly coerced and consent is clearly given.
In a roadside stop, it is unusual for a police officer to obtain a warrant, but they could freeze the situation, call for a warrant, and get judicial authorization to perform the search.
Sometimes, the police officer doesn’t need to conduct a search. If they see drugs on the console, for example, they can usually seize the evidence because it was within their plain view.
Search Incident to Arrest
If the police officer is arresting you, they can also search the immediate area to make sure there are no dangerous weapons or other items within the person’s vicinity. However, this does not give the officer a free license to thoroughly search all parts of the vehicle.
If the officer is going to tow your car, it is common to perform an inventory search. This search is primarily to catalogue the individual belongings in the vehicle before impoundment, but it can result in the discovery of incriminating evidence.
These are just a few ways in which an officer could search your vehicle. However, whether the police properly searched your vehicle is fact-specific and the law is constantly evolving. If you or someone you know was stopped by the police and question whether a search was proper, call St. Paul Criminal Defense Attorney Eric Rice at 651-998-9660 for a free consultation.