Many people are easily confused about whether or not it is legal for a police officer to search their car when they are involved in a traffic stop. Being in a car on the side of the road presents special circumstances on both sides of the equation. There are certain rules that you must follow and certain rules that police offers must follow as well.
In general, law enforcement can only search the inside of your vehicle under specific conditions. If an officer conducts a search of your car without first meeting the right conditions, that search would be ruled illegal. Not only that, any evidence of a crime found during that search would become inadmissible to be used against you in court.
What Makes A Vehicle Search Legal
Your vehicle—just like your home or your person—is protected from “unreasonable searches and seizures” by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The rights set forth in the Fourth Amendment are also echoed in Oklahoma’s own state constitution in section II-30.
These rights are meant to limit the power of police as well as other law enforcement officers, protecting citizens from an invasion of their privacy, wherever they happen to be.
When It Becomes Legal for Police to Search Your Car
There are three basic situations where it becomes legal for the police to conduct a search of your vehicle. If none of the following three requirements are met, then any search conducted would not be legal.
You Give Consent to Search
It should go without saying that if you give your consent for a law enforcement officer to look through your car, he or she is not doing anything illegal by searching the vehicle.
For example, if a police officer says, “Do you mind if I check the car for anything you shouldn’t have?” and you answer yes, then it is within the law for him to conduct a complete search of your vehicle and even arrest you for any contraband he might find.
This is one reason that you should pay very close attention to anything a police officer says to you during a traffic stop and think about what you are about to say before you answer any questions. There is never a circumstance in which you should consent to a search. And don’t ever let a police officer tell you that if you don’t consent then that gives them probable cause to search. That is just not true if they want to search they can get a warrant.
A Search Warrant Has Been Issued
If a law enforcement officer believes there is a good reason to search a person or place for evidence of a crime, he can present an affidavit to a judge stating his reasoning. If the judge agrees, a search warrant can be issued that will grant permission to search a place, a person, or a vehicle.
The scope of search warrants can vary according to the exact wording of the warrant, but it would be legal for the police to search your car if they have a warrant to search the specific vehicle, any vehicles owned by you, or vehicles present at a specific location.
The Plain View Doctrine
The plain view doctrine says that if an officer is in a place where he has a legal right to be and discovers contraband or evidence of a crime in plain view, he can seize it and use it as cause to make an arrest. That evidence can also be used as probable cause to conduct a more extensive search of your person or vehicle without a warrant.
For example, if you were stopped by the police for speeding, the officer would have no reason to do anything other than give you a speeding ticket. He would have no reason to search you or your car.
If, however, as that police officer was walking up to the side of your car, he noticed a handgun sitting in plain view on the back window shelf, he would have probable cause to believe that you may be hiding other weapons on your person or in your vehicle. He could then conduct a search of you and your vehicle legally.
The Legality of a Vehicle Search Can Be Unclear
As I said above, vehicles present special circumstances and determining whether or not a search is legal can be tricky. If you are pulled over for speeding, there may be no reason to conduct a search. If, however, you are pulled over because an officer thinks you are swerving and may be intoxicated, he may be able to justify probable cause to search the car for alcohol or drugs.
A competent attorney will be able to help you determine if a search of your vehicle was done legally or not.
Have you been charged with a crime due to a search of your car or another vehicle? If so, it’s important that you contact an experienced Oklahoma criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. You can contact me online anytime, or call 405-510-0345 for a free consultation. I’ll be happy to go over the details of your case and discuss what I can do to help you.