Know when Police Can Search Your Vehicle – and when They Can’t

Constitutional rights protect American citizens against illegal search and seizure. In today’s turbulent times it has never been more important for the average citizen to understand constitutional rights to protect against unwarranted searches. Most Americans own automobiles but many are not aware of when law enforcement officers have the right to search a vehicle including the trunk space. Specific laws determine just when and under what circumstances an officer can search the trunk of a car.

In many cases, police officers have no right to search the trunk or interior of a vehicle during a routine traffic stop but recent statistics from the Bureau of Justice indicate that out of 19.3 million traffic stops, l.3 million motorists were searched but almost 90% of the searches yielded no incriminating evidence. These searches included both the vehicle’s interior as well as the trunk.

Most citizens are familiar with warrants and a police officer with a warrant must be allowed to search home, property, or vehicles. However, it’s important to remember that to obtain a warrant; the officer must provide a higher authority with probable or just cause.

Searches without a warrant are permissible by law under some circumstances and these include:
� Consent searches. Any citizen who agrees voluntarily to a search by officers waives his or her rights under the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. Any incriminating materials or evidence found during a consent search provides law enforcement officers with the right to detain, arrest, and confiscate.

� Plain View Rule. If a motorist is stopped for a traffic violation and he or she has an illegal substance or possession (i.e. drugs or a weapon) in plain view, an officer does not require a search warrant to investigate further.

� Searches made in connection with a legal arrest. If a motorist is arrested for driving under the influence, then a search of his or her vehicle is permissible under law.

� Exigent circumstances. This type of search is more difficult to narrow down but can be performed at any time an officer feels that swift action is necessary to prevent imminent danger to life or serious damage or if officers fear that important evidence is about to be destroyed.

� Probable cause. If an officer has reason to believe that a crime is or has been committed, he or she has the authority to search. Examples might include bank robbers with a back seat full of money bags or a vehicle filled with marijuana smoke although no drug is visible.

Although the right to refuse an officer’s request to search a vehicle including the contents of the trunk is one held by every American citizen, if involved in an encounter with a police officer, each individual must determine whether or not to comply or refuse if the situation is not allowable. To refuse can often cause suspicion or lead to additional legal difficulties. If certain he or she is innocent and has nothing illegal, consenting to a search may expedite a traffic stop. Whether or not to consent to a warrant less search that does not meet any of the listed criteria is an individual one.

Although officers are required to inform every arrested individual of the Miranda Rights, officers are not bound to inform citizens whether or not a requested search is allowed by law. Officers sometimes may ask citizens to cooperate and while cooperation helps both the officer and the individual, citizens are not required to submit to a search unless it meets the previously listed criteria.

Law abiding average citizens have little to fear from an unanticipated search of a car trunk but it’s wise to know the rights of search as guaranteed by the United States Constitution.

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