Traffic Stops and Vehicle Searches
A traffic stop by law enforcement can happen to anyone. Most often it involves a pull over for exceeding the speed limit or running a red light and results in nothing worse than a citation. Some traffic stops, however, involve more serious circumstances and can result in misdemeanor or felony charges. In these cases it's important to seek the help of a qualified criminal defense attorney who can advise you on your rights pertaining to probable cause and search and seizure.Probable Cause for Traffic Stops
Police, Sheriff, and CHP officers are required to have probable cause to pull over a vehicle. Probable cause arises from evidence that a crime is being, or has been, committed. Clearly if the officer sees you ignore a stop sign or driving on the wrong side of the road, evidence exists of illegal activity, and probable cause exists to initiate a traffic stop. But probable cause can also come from observation of a malfunctioning tail light or the absence of current registration.
If you are pulled over by law enforcement, it's important to note the details of the event. Politely ask the officer why you were stopped. The law regarding traffic stops is meant to allow law enforcement to ensure public safety, but it also provides protection for citizens against abuse of that power.Search and Seizure
The law regarding searches of vehicles as part of a traffic stop is complicated, but there are broad guiding principles to keep in mind. Most importantly, the United States Constitution gives you the right to refuse an officer's request to search your vehicle if you have done nothing more than violate a traffic law. In other words, even a traffic stop for speeding doesn't give an officer blanket authority to search your vehicle. That authority comes only when evidence is present that another crime has been committed.
The 4th Amendment says that police must obtain a warrant in order to conduct a search, and in most cases this is true. But in some instances the courts have given police the leeway to conduct warrantless searches. What they need is probable cause that a crime has been committed and that the evidence is present in the vehicle.
The U.S. Supreme Court in Carroll v. United States (1925) said that police may conduct a warrantless search of a motor vehicle since a motor vehicle is by definition mobile and could be driven away with the evidence inside. In California v. Acevedo (1991), the Court broadened this power to include searches of containers in vehicles, again because the evidence could be driven away and destroyed or hidden if police were required to get a warrant.
Important restrictions do exist, however, on warrantless searches of vehicles. In Arizona v. Gant (2009), the Court said that once a suspect has been placed under arrest and moved away from the vehicle, law enforcement may conduct a search only if it pertains to evidence directly related to the crime for which the suspect was arrested.Your Rights Regarding Vehicle Searches
To summarize: warrantless searches by law enforcement of motor vehicles require probable cause; and absent probable cause, law enforcement must get your permission to initiate a search.
If an officer asks for your consent, that tells you that he doesn't have probable cause. My advice is to politely say something to the effect of, "I do not give my consent for you to search my vehicle." Lacking probable cause, the officer is obligated to allow you to drive away after dealing with whatever issue caused the pull over in the first place.Free and Confidential Consultation
If you have questions about probable cause and search and seizure related to traffic stops - especially if you believe that the stop was mishandled by the police - call me at 916-442-1200 for a free and confidential consultation.