A vehicle search, just like any other search conducted by the government, is subject to the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures and may include searches performed without a warrant. However, because vehicles are mobile, unlike homes, and because an individual’s expectation of privacy is less in a vehicle, the police may have more leeway in conducting a warrantless search of your car. The general rule is that a warrant is required to conduct a search by the government, but there are always exceptions. When it comes to cars, the warrantless exceptions include the following: 1) a search incident to a valid arrest, 2) where there is probable cause to search, 3) where the car is impounded or placed in storage, and 4) Where there is consent to search. If a court finds that any of these factors were present during the search, then the search will be valid. When an occupant of the car is arrested the police may search the entire passenger compartment as well as all containers open or closed in that area. They may not search the trunk. Under the probable cause exception, if the police have probable cause to believe that contraband or other evidence of a crime is in the vehicle, the vehicle may be searched without a warrant. Probable cause has to be based on objective facts, not the officer’s subjective beliefs. The scope of the search is much wider for probable cause than for an arrest. If the police have probable cause, they can search the entire vehicle, including the trunk, and all containers, including those belonging to passengers, that might contain the evidence for which they are searching. Getting the driver’s consent is another, and probably most common way that police can search a vehicle. Many people may think that refusing makes them look more guilty in the eyes of the police, but courts have ruled that the police cannot presume any guilt or wrongdoing if the driver does not give consent. However, many drivers do consent to searches even though it is their right not to. The consent must be unequivocal, intelligently given, and free of duress or coercion or the court will find it invalid and throw the evidence out. Vehicle stops and searches have been the subject of endless litigation in the field of criminal law. Each case is going to depend on its unique and sometimes subtle facts. If you have been arrested because of a search of your vehicle by the police, have an experienced attorney review the case. Patrick Stegall is a Memphis criminal defense lawyer. He represents individuals in all criminal matters, and specializes in helping first-time offenders keep charges off their record and stay out of jail.
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