We’ve talked here before about when law enforcement officers have the right to search someone’s home and when they can search their “person” or body. The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides protection against unreasonable search and seizure.
Most people are less clear on when officers can legally search their vehicle – for example, during a traffic stop for suspected impaired driving or even a relatively minor violation like an expired license plate. This isn’t addressed by the writers of the U.S. Constitution at a time when vehicles were horse-drawn carriages.
Supreme Court rulings have addressed the issue
The U.S. Supreme Court has issued rulings addressing vehicle searches beginning about a century ago as motor vehicles started becoming a mode of transportation. It ruled that a warrant wasn’t required to search a vehicle as long as police had a valid reason for stopping the driver because:
- The driver could potentially easily get away, so there’s no time to obtain a warrant.
- A person has less expectation of privacy in a vehicle than in a home or other property.
An officer must still show that they have “probable cause” for believing that evidence of criminal wrongdoing will be found before searching a vehicle.
Just as something found in “plain view” during a legal search of a home can legally be used as evidence, so can something in plain view during a traffic stop. Often, this involves drugs, weapons or something on a seat or dashboard.
If you’re facing charges based on evidence found during a vehicle search, you need to ensure that it was a legal search and seizure. Having experienced legal guidance can help you protect your rights and present your case.