Most people know that law enforcement officers can’t just come to your home and start looking around for evidence of a crime. They typically need permission to come in and look around or a search warrant that specifies what areas they can search and what they can seize. This protection comes from the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment.
There are exceptions. Officers can enter a premises, for example, if they believe someone is disposing of evidence. If they’re legally in a premises, they can take items believed to be evidence of criminal activity in “plain view.”
Things are different when it comes to law enforcement’s right to search a vehicle during a stop. We’ve all heard anecdotal stories of police stopping someone for speeding, driving recklessly or something like a burned-out taillight and then started looking around for drugs or unlicensed weapons.
Can evidence found in this kind of vehicle search be used against drivers and passengers? In some cases, it can.
Cars weren’t around when the U.S. Constitution was written
Over many years, the U.S. Supreme Court has made rulings regarding search and seizure of vehicles. About a century ago, as motorized cars became more common, the Court ruled that law enforcement didn’t need a warrant to search a vehicle if they had valid cause to stop it and “probable cause” that criminal evidence was inside because there was less expectation of privacy than in a home. Further, because a vehicle could be driven away, they can’t risk taking time to obtain a warrant
Officers still often find contraband in plain view when they stop a driver. Drugs are among the most common examples. If you have been arrested and charged with a crime based on a search of your vehicle, it’s crucial to ensure that your rights weren’t violated. Having legal guidance can help.