Why Can the Police Search Your Vehicle Without a Warrant After They Arrest You?
“Illegal search and seizure” are words you hear all the time when discussing police officers and their actions with citizens. You also hear “fourth amendment” and “search warrant,” two terms synonymous with both illegal and legal searches. But what do those terms mean, and why can the police often search your vehicle after they have arrested you, even if they don’t have a warrant? Read on to find out.
First, generally, the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects people from illegal searches and seizures. The exact language is “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.” This means that the police cannot search you or your belongings unreasonably, and they cannot search you without a warrant that is based on probable cause.
Probable cause in and of itself is kind of hard to describe. The way I’ve heard it described is a reasonable suspicion, based on articulable facts, that crime is afoot. Basically, to get a search warrant, the police have to show they have a reasonable basis to believe that a crime is being committed somewhere, and that their belief is based on actual confirmed facts, not hunches or speculation.
In the real world, searches are committed everyday without search warrants, particularly in vehicles. How can this be so? Well, the courts have determined there are circumstances that make the search of your car reasonable, even if no warrant is available. These circumstances include: consent; inventory search; exigent circumstances; and officer safety. If any of these are present, it is likely that the search was legal (though as a criminal defense attorney, I might give it a shot to try to get the evidence suppressed).
Consent is what it is. For example, let’s say you are driving around in Seattle, minding your own business, and you have a pound of marijuana in your trunk. You are pulled over by a Seattle police officer for failing to use your turn signal. After getting your driver’s license and insurance information he writes you a ticket and hands it over to you. Just as he is about to leave he asks if you have any drugs in the vehicle. You say no, and he asks if you mind if he take a look. If you tell him okay, he can search your car, even though he has no probable cause whatsoever! In this instance, as a Seattle criminal defense lawyer, I would tell you never to consent to a search of anything. It doesn’t make you look guilty, it makes you look smart.
The other three exceptions deal with the situation where you have already been arrested or you are about to be arrested. An inventory search occurs after you’ve been arrested, and, for whatever reason, the car needs to be impounded. The courts have found a search of the vehicle in this instance is okay, since it protects both the owner of the vehicle from theft and the police from accusations of theft. And the extent of the search depends on what state you are in. In Washington, for example, only the passenger compartment and unlocked containers may be searched (the trunk and other locked containers are off limits).
Exigent circumstances exist when a legitimate threat exists that evidence or fruits of a crime will be lost or destroyed. If, for example, you are pulled over in your car by the Kirkland police and they see an open container of beer in your lap, they will probably cite you for having that open beer and look through the rest of the car to see if there are any other open containers. If they find marijuana while doing this search, the evidence may be admissible, as they were doing a legal search and stumbled upon the marijuana. A good Kirkland criminal attorney would try to get this kicked, though.
Finally, officer safety. If, for example, the officer runs your name through the system and it returns an arrest warrant for armed robbery, or they pulled you over because they believe you may be the robber of a bank robbery call they just received, they may ask you to step out of the car and search your immediate “grab area” to make sure there are no weapons present. This may be a reasonable search, and if, while conducting this search they find drugs or something, it may be admissible against you.