Americans typically have some idea of their right to privacy if police officers want to search their home or office. They generally know from watching Law & Order or any number of other TV shows that officers either need permission or a warrant unless there are special (exigent) circumstances like someone being harmed or trying to escape.
When it comes to police searching a car or truck during a traffic stop, most people aren’t certain what their rights are. For one thing, it’s easy enough for officers to see something on a seat or even the floor that might appear to be drugs or a weapon. As with other searches, anything in plain view is typically fair game for seizure. But do they have a right to go searching through your vehicle and open the trunk?
The bigger question is whether evidence of a criminal offense, like a prohibited weapon, a stolen laptop or illegal drugs can be used against someone if police searched their car without permission or a warrant? It sometimes can.
U.S. Supreme Court rulings have clarified what’s legal
The men who wrote the Fourth Amendment protections against unlawful search and seizure traveled the roads of Virginia and other areas via horse and carriage. As motorized vehicles became the common mode of transportation in the early 20th century, the Supreme Court ruled that police could search a vehicle without a warrant or consent as long as they had stopped the driver for a valid reason and had probable cause to believe that they could find evidence of a crime in the vehicle. Of course, there’s a lot of debate over when police have a legitimate reason to stop a vehicle.
The looser restrictions on vehicle searches are based on two key factors. First, the vehicle could conceivably be driven away, so there’s no time to wait for a warrant. Second, there’s less expectation of privacy when you’re in a vehicle than inside a home or other property.
In the stress of a vehicle stop and search, it can be hard to know if everything is being done legally, and you may be afraid to assert your rights or ask questions. That’s why if you’re charged with a crime based on evidence found in a vehicle search, you should seek legal guidance to ensure that your rights are protected.