Your stomach drops as you hear the whirring sirens and glimpse the strobing red and blue lights in your rearview mirror. For whatever reason, a police officer is pulling you over. The officer makes contact and requests your license and registration, and perhaps has informed you of the reason for the traffic stop. After a few moments of discussion, the officer then asks to take a look inside your vehicle, and states that a search will be conducted whether you give the permission or not.
But wait, is the officer allowed to do this?
(1) Your Rights
Under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Now, you will notice that this constitutional language does not specifically state “vehicles” (due in no small part to the simple fact that “vehicles” did not exist in the year of 1791). In the subsequent years since the rise of the automobile, however, the United States Supreme Court has acknowledged that people do have a certain amount of security rights in their motor vehicle.
So, we have a a right to privacy when driving on the roads in our cars – that’s great. The level of this right to vehicle privacy, however, is much lower than the constitutional rights afforded to us in being secure in our homes, and other places that we live or sleep.
Automobile Exception: Due to the mobile nature of vehicles, as well as the fact that people tend to not keep a great number of personal effects inside their cars, the United States Supreme Court has reasoned that there is a lower expectation of privacy in motor vehicles. As a result, the Court has carved out an exception to the Fourth Amendment that has become known as the Automobile/Motor Vehicle Exception. In simple terms, this means that police may conduct searches of vehicles without first obtaining a search warrant, so long as they have probable cause to do so.
Probable Cause: Police can search without a warrant only if they have the necessary probable cause. Probable cause exists when an officer has a reasonable basis for believing that contraband or evidence of a crime is present within the vehicle. There is no definite or specific definition of “reasonable” and often this is what the lawyers will argue about in the courthouse. Despite this ambiguity, the courts often look for whether the officer had a realistic amount of suspicion based on a totality of circumstances strong enough to justify a reasonable person’s belief that certain facts are probably true. As such, the question of probable cause is very fact specific, and the court will look at all of the circumstances that were present at the time of the stop prior to the search being conducted.
What Can Be Searched
Up to this point, we have been addressing the question of the police searching your “vehicle” in the basic sense of the interior of the car (i.e. floorboards, backseat, under seats, etc.), but what about specific areas of the vehicle or containers/bags in the vehicle?
(1) Closed/Locked Areas: Whether or not the police can search your locked trunk, glove compartment, or any other locked compartment in your car will highly depend on the facts of the situation. As mentioned above, they must have probable cause or your consent to search these areas. Furthermore, the search must be limited to those areas where they reasonably believe the evidence is contained. For example, if the size of a compartment is obviously too small to hold the object for which they believe you possess, then searching in that area would be an unreasonable (unlawful) search.
(2) Containers/Bags: Much like trunks and glove compartments mentioned above, it is going to highly depend on the circumstances as to whether the search of containers, bags, and purses within the vehicle is valid. If the officer does indeed have probable cause to search, however, and it is reasonable that the item could be in that bag or purse, then the court may uphold the search as being valid. It should be noted that any such bags within the vehicle are fair game, even if they belong to a passenger or someone that isn’t even riding in the vehicle. If it is in the car and there is probable cause, and the bag is large enough to hold what they are looking for, then the bag can be searched. (Note: Although the police may search a bag belonging to someone other than you, they will still have to establish your possession of that bag in order to support the finding of guilt on the criminal charge).
(3) Cell Phones: In most situations, the police may not search your cell phone without a warrant or your permission. This protection is due to the amount of personal information contained in the digital contents of your phone, as well as the fact that an officer is obviously not going to find contraband or a dangerous weapon in the contents of your phone. In the 2014 United States Supreme Court case of Riley v. California, 573 U.S. 373 (2014), the Court held that the warrantless search and seizure of the contents of a cell phone during an arrest is unconstitutional.
An exception to this warrant requirement could exist in certain extreme situations, for example if it is necessary to access a phone to prevent some imminent destruction of evidence, or where a threat exists whereby a cell phone is being used to cause the imminent threat of serious injury to others. These are highly unusual scenarios, however, and for most settings inherent in a traffic stop, the police will need to obtain a warrant to search your phone.
Obviously, an officer can request that you unlock and reveal the contents of your phone. But you do not have to consent to such a request, and indeed you should not ever consent to such requests.
If you unfortunately find yourself in a situation whereby your vehicle is impounded for whatever reason by the police, yet another exception exists allowing the police to conduct a warrantless search. Once impounded and held in the police lot, the officers are able to conduct what is known as an inventory search where they enter everything they find into a log. The alleged premise for this practice is for the police to safeguard themselves from claims of stolen property, and to ensure that no dangerous items are hidden within the vehicle. As a practical matter, however, incriminating evidence may be used against you in the event that such evidence is found during the inventory search. In order to be considered as a reasonable Constitutional search, the police must follow established guidelines and procedures throughout the inventory process.
Important Note: None of this will matter if you voluntarily give the police permission to search your vehicle, containers, or other personal property. It is highly advised (especially in the case that you have any contraband or incriminating evidence in your car) that you DO NOT give the police permission to search. Giving them permission will only increase the likelihood of you being convicted for the alleged criminal charge.
The Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures is highly technical and filled with complications when determining what is and is not a valid automobile search. Every vehicle search is based on the totality of the circumstances present at the time of the traffic stop, and the evaluation of the search is highly driven by each specific fact. It is highly advised that you choose an attorney that has the knowledge and experience necessary to build a strong defense against your criminal charges. Call one of our skilled attorneys at Strentz, Greene & Coleman, PLC, and let us help assist and guide you in determining what will work best for your individual facts and needs. Contact us at (540) 479-1511, and visit our website at virginiafamilylawattorney.com
Thomas E. Dodd, III, Associate Attorney