- Q: If I get stopped on the interstate, will the police search my car, regardless
of whether or not I consent?
A: In interstate drug stop cases, sometimes drivers deny consent to search
the vehicle and the vehicle is searched regardless of consent. However,
law enforcement may not search a vehicle without consent unless the officer
has a lawful reason and the authority to do so.
First consent must be voluntary. This means that law enforcement cannot
coerce consent. Some law enforcement agencies will use written consent
forms so that the individual who is stopped and detained may have the
option of providing written consent. Other law enforcement agencies do
not feel that consent forms are necessary, especially if the entire stop
is being recorded by the police officer’s dash camera.
Second, if the driver or passenger of the vehicle does not give consent
to search the vehicle, then the officer must have probable cause to search
the vehicle. Probable cause is a legal standard whereby the officer must
demonstrate well-grounded facts that a crime has been committed. An officer’s
hunch or suspicions are not enough to search without consent or without
a search warrant. The officer must be able to articulate, reasonable objective
facts as to why he believes he will find contraband in the vehicle if
he searches it. Courts have found that probable cause to search a vehicle
may include the odor of marijuana, an alert and indication of a drug dog,
or an admission by an occupant of the vehicle that there is a small amount
of marijuana or other controlled substance in the vehicle. If an officer
has probable cause to search the vehicle, the officer may search the entire
vehicle. This includes both the trunk and the glove box. The officer who
has probable cause to search the vehicle may also search packages and
containers within the vehicle.
Third, it is important to recognize that while the standard of probable
cause is not that high, it must still be respected by law enforcement.
If there is no probable cause to search, the search and all items that
it turned up will be suppressed as violations of the 4th and 14th amendments of the United States Constitution.
Fourth, the standard of probable cause is determined by a totality of the
circumstances. This is the same for reasonable suspicion which allows
law enforcement to detain someone while trying to establish probable cause
to search. Sometimes when law enforcement officials are attempting to
establish probable cause to search or reasonable suspicion to detain someone,
they will infringe upon constitutional rights. Sometimes due to the intimidating
presence of law enforcement or just plain nervousness, individuals fail
to assert their constitutional rights, and either give law enforcement
permission to search their vehicles or provide statements and information
to law enforcement which, while seemingly innocuous on its face, is used
to establish probable cause, and in some cases obtain a conviction.
Getting back to the original question, if an individual denies consent
to search, law enforcement may not search the vehicle unless they have
probable cause to believe that a crime has taken place.
- Q: Do police have to get a warrant to search my car?
A: The short answer is no. Due to the automobile exception, law enforcement
officers do not need a warrant to search automobiles travelling on public
roads and highways. The reasoning behind this is that while we certainly
maintain an expectation of privacy in our personal effects and in our
residences, we do not retain that same expectation of privacy when we
are in public.
When we travel on roads and highways, we expect to see other people and
government officials, as the roads and highways often belong to the government.
It is important to recognize that though you have a lesser expectation
of privacy on a public road or highway, does not mean you have no expectation
of privacy or to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. For
this reason, individuals travelling on a highway have a right to deny
consent to the search of their vehicles, and also have the right to be
free from unlawful detentions. Put simply, just because police do not
need a warrant to search your car, doesn’t mean that they automatically
get to do it without consent or a legal reason to do so. In summary, police
do not need a warrant to search your car when your car is on public roads
and highways, or at a public location in general. However, this does not
mean that law enforcement may search vehicles at will without meeting
certain specified legal standards.