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Understanding Probable Cause for Car Searches

While most people understand the basic concept of probable cause in search and seizure cases, it’s not uncommon for them to be less aware of what constitutes probable cause, as it is not as easily quantified and may be open to interpretation.

Understanding your rights regarding vehicle searches can help protect you from illegal searches and any criminal charges that may follow. Below is everything you need to know.

Defining Probable Cause

The parameters that define probable cause are somewhat vague, but one constant is that they require reasonable grounds for conducting a search. In other words, there must be circumstances in which a reasonable person would believe a crime had been committed, was in the process of being committed, or was about to be committed. The threshold for probable cause falls somewhere between general suspicion and the level of evidence required for conviction.

The Role of Probable Cause in Car Searches

Police officers are tasked with protecting the public, and that sometimes requires that they try to ascertain if criminal activity has taken place or is likely to. If, for example, officers see someone consuming alcohol in a car or smell marijuana smoke emanating from the vehicle, they may reasonably suspect that a DUI has either occurred or is about to occur.

Similarly, a search may be warranted if a car is pulled over, matching the description of one involved in a nearby crime or if officers spot a gun in the back seat. The legality of a vehicle search relies on elements like information, observation, circumstances, and experience.

Constitutional Protections

According to the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, authorities are prohibited from performing “unreasonable searches and seizures.” The amendment protects persons, houses, papers, and effects, including vehicles.

Many criminal cases involve search and seizure, but one that helped establish parameters for the limit of Fourth Amendment protections was Carroll v. United States. In this 1925 case, undercover prohibition agents attempting to catch George Carroll in the act of illegally selling bootleg liquor happened to spot his car on the road. They pulled him over, searched his vehicle, and discovered 68 bottles of whiskey hidden inside.

Carroll fought the charges, but the court decided that the officers had probable cause and could not wait to obtain a warrant because Carroll simply would have fled to another jurisdiction, taking the evidence with him. The case set a precedent for warrantless searches of vehicles and established related standards of privacy known as the Carroll Doctrine.

Common Scenarios Involving Car Searches

The invocation of probable cause during a traffic stop could involve items in plain view, other observable indications of illegal activity, or information regarding criminal activity linked to the vehicle. Officers may also ask for the driver or vehicle owner’s consent to conduct a search.

The doctrine regarding searches incident to arrest (SITA) allows for authorities to search not only the person under arrest but also an area within that person’s immediate control, which could include a vehicle within arm’s reach.

Drivers’ Rights and How to Exercise Them

If an officer stops you and asks to search your vehicle, the Fourth Amendment gives you the right to refuse. All you have to do is respectfully decline, citing your Fourth Amendment protections. If you believe a warrantless search of your vehicle was conducted without probable cause, you can work with a criminal defense lawyer to fight it and have any evidence related to an illegal search invalidated.

Legal Outcomes of Car Searches

If illegal items are found during a legal search of your vehicle, they can be used as evidence in a criminal case against you. Contesting the legality of a search will require you to provide proof that the police did not have your consent to search and had no probable cause to do so.

Understand and Exercise Your Rights

Probable cause, to a certain extent, is open to interpretation. That can work both in favor of authorities as well as those subject to search and seizure. As such, it’s important to understand your rights and protections so you can prevent illegal searches or fight charges stemming from an unlawful vehicle search.