The Fourth Amendment of The U.S. Constitution, and Article I Section 12 of the Florida Constitution, protects citizens from unlawful police searches and seizures.
These provisions require the police to have Probable Cause or PC to conduct a search or seizure. Typically, the police establish PC by securing a warrant from a neutral third party, who is often a judge.
The Automobile Exception
In the context of cars, however, the United States Supreme Court has consistently upheld the principle that if the police have PC to believe that a car contains contraband or evidence of a crime, they do not need to obtain a search warrant to search it, more commonly known as the Automobile Exception. Similarly, if the police have PC to believe that a container, such as a suitcase or backpack, within a vehicle contains contraband, or evidence of a crime, they may search that container without a warrant. It does not matter if that container belongs to the driver or a passenger.
If the police, for instance, believe that a car contains a suitcase filled with cocaine, they could search anywhere in the car that could contain the suitcase and they could open the suitcase, but they could not open the glovebox to look for the suitcase, unless they were looking for a very small human.
If the police conduct a valid Automobile Exception search in proper areas of the car for specific evidence of crime A, and inadvertently discover evidence of crime B, the police may use the evidence of crime B in a prosecution for crime B. So, if the police stop a car for running a red light and develop suspicion that the driver is under the influence of alcohol, and lawfully conduct a DUI investigation, they may, as part of the investigation, search the passenger compartment of the car for open containers of alcoholic beverages. If they happen to find cocaine, the driver can be arrested and prosecuted for possession of cocaine.
Searches of Vehicles without Probable Cause (PC)
Although the Constitution generally requires PC to search, there are several instances where the police, do not need PC to search.
The police often use the nervousness and ignorance of the occupants of a stopped vehicle to get the occupants of a vehicle to consent to a search. Once consent is freely given, the police can lawfully search a car, even if they lack probable cause to do so. It is important to know that it is entirely within one’s rights to deny consent to a search of a vehicle. Moreover, if the police ask a suspect for consent to search the suspect’s car, the police probably realize they do not have PC to do so.
Search Incident to a Lawful Arrest
If the police make a lawful arrest of someone, they may search that person and the area in that person’s immediate control for purposes of the officer’s safety. In the context of cars, this means the police can only rely on this exception if the arrestee could plausibly reach into his or her car for a weapon. If the arrestee cannot, this exception does not apply.
When the police lawfully take custody of a someone’s car, they may take an inventory of the contents of that car, so long as the purpose of the search is “non-investigative” or done for some purpose other than suspicion of criminal activity. So, if the police search a car in their custody, for instance, to catalog the car’s contents so the owner can later verify that nothing was lost, the police have not violated the owner of that car’s rights.
If, for instance, the police lawfully arrest someone for a DUI, and subsequently conduct a valid inventory of the suspect’s car and find fentanyl, the State may lawfully prosecute that person for possession of fentanyl.
Determining whether the police properly conducted a warrantless vehicle search is a difficult question and depends on specific facts. If you or a loved one has been stopped and/or arrested by the police, and the police searched your car, you should speak to an experienced criminal defense attorney. Michael White can look for defects in the search and help you beat the accusations.