Can the Police Search My Car?
Officers may only search private property if they have probable cause.
Yes, but the right to search an automobile or other vehicle is not unlimited. In fact, the Fourth Amendment only allows “reasonable” searches and seizures. The legal definition of a reasonable search is discussed below. The punishment for a Fourth Amendment violation is severe. If the search or seizure was unreasonable, the seized drugs, weapons, or other contraband is inadmissible in court under the exclusionary rule.
If a Fort Worth criminal defense lawyer invokes the exclusionary rule, the prosecutor’s case normally falls apart like a house of cards. In fact, the judge might dismiss the case on the spot, citing a lack of evidence. If the case limps forward, an attorney can usually engineer a favorable plea bargain. That arrangement usually includes a reduced charge or reduced punishment.
A search warrant must be based on a probable cause affidavit. Automobile search warrants without both of these things are invalid.
Probable cause is an ill-defined standard of proof that is somewhere between reasonable suspicion, which is an evidence-based hunch of criminal activity, and beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the standard of proof at trial.
The standard is low, but evidence-gathering techniques are often suspect. For example, many officers over-relay on paid informants. That payment could be money or leniency in another matter. Since many people will say almost anything for love or money, this testimony is often unreliable.
An affidavit is a legal document that is signed in front of a notary public or other official. An affidavit is not a phone call to a judge. Furthermore, an affidavit is not an unsworn statement. Because of these technical requirements, most officers do not have search warrants when they search vehicles. Everything happens too quickly.
Originally, the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement was absolute. Over the years, the Supreme Court has carved out a few exceptions. Some exceptions that often apply in vehicle searches include:
- Consent: Owners, or apparent owners (e.g., a driver who does not legally own the car), may consent to vehicle and other property searches. Consent must be voluntary. Coerced consent (e.g., I’ll get a warrant if you do not consent) is arguably involuntary.
- Plain View: This exception applies only to seizures, not searches and seizures. If officers legally detain vehicles and they see contraband inside a vehicle, they may seize it, warrant or not. If a Fort Worth criminal defense attorney can overturn the stop, an attorney can exclude plain view-seized evidence.
- Automobile Exception: This exception, which applies to any motor vehicle, doesn’t come up very often. Officers must have probable cause to believe that evidence of a crime is in that vehicle.-
Until recently, the search incident to arrest exception was very common in vehicle search situations. Officers “arrested” motorists for speeding or other minor infractions and then tore their vehicles apart. But the Supreme Court has sharply limited these searches.
Incidentally, for many years, officers used the “I smelled marijuana” line to justify vehicle searches in Texas. That line may no longer hold up in court since hemp is legal. Hemp and marijuana have the exact same physical characteristics.
Connect With a Dedicated Tarrant County Criminal Defense Lawyer
Officers sometimes do not need warrants to search vehicles. For a confidential consultation with an experienced criminal defense attorney in Fort Worth, contact the Law Office of Kyle Whittaker. Convenient payment plans are available.