Legally, police officers can search your vehicle without your explicit permission. Yet, certain conditions must be met for them to do so. For example, they must have a warrant or immediate need and probable cause. Although these requirements exist, law enforcement officials might engage in actions beyond their authority's limits. If this happens, you could take legal action to have evidence excluded from your case. A criminal defense lawyer can help protect your rights and seek a just outcome on your behalf.
Legal Authority of Police to Search Cars
Under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, citizens have the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures by law enforcement officials. Generally, this means that police officers must have a warrant to go through someone's property, including their car.
Still, even without a warrant, authorities could search your vehicle. One of the ways this can happen is if you permit them. Your consent to submit to a vehicle search must be free and voluntary. In other words, the officer cannot do or say anything that would make you feel forced or coerced into permitting them to search your vehicle.
That said, sometimes officers use their position as authority figures to make people feel as though their only option is to agree to their demands. For instance, they might form their request in a way that seems like an absolute order.
Your Rights When an Officer Asks to Search Your Vehicle
Generally, you have the right to deny requests to search your vehicle unless the officer has a search warrant. If you do not permit the officer to go through your things, make sure that you stay respectful in the situation without being aggressive or confrontational.
When the Police Can Legally Search Without Permission
Exceptions exist to the warrant or consent requirements for the police to search your vehicle.
An officer can legally look through your property if any of the following conditions are met:
- Probable cause: The officer has a reason to believe that evidence of a crime will be found in your car. For their actions to be justified, exigent circumstances must be present, meaning that there would be a risk to public safety or justice if the officer does not immediately search your car.
- Arrest: If an officer arrests you, they can search your vehicle. Yet, they can only look through portions of your car that were in your immediate control. They can't, for example, search closed compartments.
- Inventory: The police do not need your permission to search your car if they have impounded it and must inventory your property.
Legal Recourse If You Believe That Your Rights Have Been Violated
If you believe that a police officer has overstepped their legal authority when searching your vehicle, you might be able to take certain steps to pursue remedies. For instance, you can file a motion to suppress. This means that the judge may rule certain pieces of evidence the police collected during the search be excluded from trial.
Having evidence deemed inadmissible does not guarantee a complete dismissal of criminal charges. However, it can create uncertainty in the judge's or jury's minds. Without key pieces of evidence, the prosecutor might struggle to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus, the chances of pursuing a more favorable outcome may increase.
Contact an Attorney for Help
Although police officers generally need a warrant or your permission to search your car, in some situations, they need neither. If exceptions don't exist, you have options for facilitating fairness in your case.
To fully understand legal avenues to pursue, it's beneficial to speak to a criminal defense attorney. They can evaluate the conduct of law enforcement officials and determine whether the search was illegal. If it was, your lawyer could file a motion to have evidence thrown out.
Even if it turns out that the original search was lawful, an attorney can still use their knowledge and insight to develop an effective defense strategy for your case.
Learn more about how a lawyer may be able to help you by contacting our Los Angeles team at Lessem, Newstat & Tooson, LLP at (800) 462-7160.