If you've been pulled over on suspicion of driving while intoxicated or for any other alleged offense, the officer might ask to search your vehicle. Any encounter with law enforcement can be intimidating, and you may feel obligated to comply with their requests. They are, after all, in a position of authority, and you are a law-abiding citizen. However, you might wonder if you must allow an officer to search your car when they ask to do so. The answer is no.
Typically, if an officer is asking to look through your vehicle, it means that they have no justification to initiate the search. By giving consent, you waive your Fourth Amendment protections, and anything the officer finds may be used against you in your case.
Difficult as it may be, politely declining a vehicle search is in your best interest, even if you feel you have nothing to hide. You don't want to unknowingly allow the officer to collect evidence that can strengthen the prosecutor's allegations. If you're stopped by police and they ask to search your car, politely decline by saying that you refuse to consent to a search. This can help your case in the long run.
When Can the Police Search Your Car?
Although you might have declined the officer's request to look through your car, in certain circumstances, they can conduct a search even without your permission.
Such instances include the following:
- When the officer has a valid search warrant: In many cases, before law enforcement officials can search your personal property, they need a valid search warrant. This is a document issued and signed by a judge stating that probable cause justifies the search. That being said, a vehicle exception exists to the warrant requirement. Thus, if an officer is going to search your vehicle, under defined situations, they don't need anything from the judge before doing so. The reason for this is twofold: First, getting a warrant takes time, and because cars can move quickly, the driver can take off before the officer receives the warrant. Second, the expectation of privacy is decreased when a person is driving on a public road, making the standards lower for searching a car than a home.
- When the officer has probable cause to believe your car contains evidence of a crime: If the officer believes you are committing or have committed an offense, they can search your car without your permission or a warrant. Probable cause means that specific facts exist that suggest a violation has happened. Also, if evidence of a crime is in "plain view," meaning the officer can clearly see it, they are justified in conducting a more thorough search.
- When the officer believes their safety is in danger: If the officer detains you and they think you might have a weapon in your vehicle, they can look through your car to protect their safety.
- When the officer has arrested you: Now suppose you were pulled over on suspicion of DWI. The officer observed your behavior – perhaps your speech was slurred or you failed the field sobriety tests – and had probable cause to arrest you for drunk driving. Because they have arrested you, the officer has the authority to search your vehicle without a warrant or your permission.
- When the police have impounded your car: If you're arrested, the officer will take you into custody and may have your car impounded. Under this circumstance, the police can go through your vehicle to conduct an inventory search. This is justified because, technically, the police are protecting your property and ensuring it doesn't get lost.
What Happens If the Police Conducted an Unlawful Search?
If the police searched your vehicle, but they didn't have the authority to do so, their actions are considered unlawful. Any evidence they obtained may be excluded from your case. This means that the prosecutor wouldn't be able to use it. Thus, the allegations against you may be weakened, and your charges may be reduced or dropped.
If you have more questions about police searches or feel authorities violated your rights, contact Hamilton Grant PC at (214) 225-7117. Our Dallas attorneys will defend you throughout your case.