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Can the Police Search Your Car?

Often, when a police officer pulls you over, you may receive a citation and be sent on your way. While this may be a frustrating situation, it is much better than what some drivers experience when a police officer wants to search the driver’s car. The 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution gives you protection against unreasonable search and seizure, which applies to places in which you have a reasonable expectation of privacy. Generally speaking, police need a search warrant to conduct a search without violating your 4th Amendment rights. However, there are some exceptions to the warrant requirement when it comes to motor vehicles.

Searches at Traffic Stops – An officer may have a lawful reason to pull you over and issue a citation, this does not, however, mean they have a lawful basis to search your car without a warrant. Simply because you committed a traffic offense does not mean the officer has probable cause to believe you have weapons, drugs, or other contraband in the vehicle. Without such probable cause, the motor vehicle exception does not apply. Officers may have probable cause if they smell or see drugs or other contraband in plain sight during the traffic stop, in which case they may have a basis for a lawful search.

Officers can also search your car if you consent to the search. They will often ask you if they have your permission to search the car, and always remember – you do not have to say yes. You always have the right to refuse a search, in which case an officer would need probable cause or a warrant.

Searches After an Arrest – Officers can search a car during or after an arrest in the following situations:

  • The officer believes the arrestee may access the vehicle and get weapons, destroy evidence, or find a means of escape. If an arrestee is secured out of reach and cannot reasonably access the vehicle, this reason does not justify a search.
  • The officer believes the vehicle contains evidence related to the arrest and suspected crime. In this case, the officer may only search areas that may reasonably contain such evidence. If a driver is arrested for DWI, an officer may search for alcohol containers or other evidence of drinking, though this does not allow them to search small compartments where containers would not fit nor areas the driver could not access to drink while driving.

The law is complicated when it comes to lawful or unlawful searches of motor vehicles, and many police officers overstep their bounds and violate your 4th Amendment rights with an unjustified vehicle search. If police recover evidence of a crime via unlawful search, that evidence should be suppressed in any subsequent criminal case against you, as it was obtained by unlawful means.

Speak with a St. Louis Criminal Defense Law Firm as soon as possible. You need the right criminal defense attorney who can identify when a search was illegal and who knows how to get any resulting evidence suppressed from your case. If you’ve been arrested in the St. Louis area, call the law office of Bruntrager & Billings, P.C. at 314-646-0066 or contact us online today.

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