Criminal Lawyer – Back to Basics: Search and Seizure Laws

SQ Attorneys


Let’s get back to basics and discuss when a police officer can search your vehicle. The Fourth Amendment’s protection against unlawful search and seizure makes random police car searches illegal. If the police search your car without your permission or a valid reason, they are violating your constitutional rights. Typically, an officer must have reason to believe a crime has been committed before searching your car. For example, upon a DUI arrest, an officer can search your car since they had a legal reason to initiate a stop and subsequently arrest you.

Under the Fourth Amendment, courts generally give police more leeway to search a vehicle, rather than a home. Known as the “automobile exception” to the search warrant requirement, individuals have less of an expectation of privacy when driving a car. Furthermore, this exception is based on public safety concerns such as drunk driving or excessive speeding.

So, when can the police search your car? Under the following circumstances: 1) You have given the officer consent; 2) The officer has probable cause to believe there is evidence of a crime in your vehicle; 3) The officer reasonably believes a search is necessary to their own protection (ie: a hidden weapon); 4) The officer has a valid search warrant and/or 5) You have been arrested and the search is related to that arrest (such as a search for illegal drugs).

Officers may ask you for permission to search your vehicle, but you may decline the request or simply remain silent if no warrant is presented. Even if you are unaware of your rights and consent to a search because you believe you have no choice, ignorance of the law is no defense and permission to search effectively waives your Fourth Amendment rights.

If an officer searches your vehicle without your permission, do not argue with the officer but remain silent. Under the “exclusionary rule,” illegally obtained evidence cannot be used in a case against you.

Probable cause exists when an officer has reason to believe a crime is being (or has been) committed, giving the officer the legal authority to conduct a search. For example, the police can search your car if your eyes are bloodshot and marijuana use is suspected, or if your car matches the description of a getaway vehicle used in a bank robbery.

Additionally, any evidence of a crime that is left in “plain view” of an officer may be seized and lead to a more thorough search. For example, an officer may conduct a search after seeing a glass pipe with drug residue on the car’s dashboard. In that scenario, the evidence left in plain view establishes probable cause that a crime was committed.

Federal courts have expanded the plain view doctrine to include other types of sensory evidence, such as the smell of drugs emanating from a car’s trunk (including that which is only detectable by a drug-sniffing dog) or the sound of a kidnapping victim in the back of a van crying out for help.

The threshold for “reasonable suspicion,” on the other hand, is not as stringent as that which is required to establish probable cause. It is more than simply a “hunch” but does not necessarily involve indisputable evidence of a crime. For example, a motorist who is swerving from lane to lane may be drunk or just a bad driver, but this gives an officer reasonable suspicion to investigate further. See “What is Reasonable Suspicion for a DUI Stop?” to learn more.

If you or a loved one is in a bind as a result of a criminal charge, immediately contact a Seattle Criminal Attorney. A Criminal lawyer is not going to judge you, and understands that everyone makes mistakes. Hiring a Seattle Criminal Lawyer to help can – at a minimum – reduce penalties, and can help direct people on how to best deal with their criminal charge, and many times even get them dismissed. So it should go without saying that someone cited for a misdemeanor or felony should hire a qualified Seattle Criminal Lawyer as soon as possible. Criminal charges can cause havoc on a person’s personal and professional life. Anyone charged with a crime in Washington State should immediately seek the assistance of a seasoned Seattle Criminal Lawyer.

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