Commitment To Justice

Are the police allowed to search my car?

On Behalf of | Jul 11, 2022 | Criminal Defense

During a routine traffic stop, police officers may desire to search a car — hoping to find drugs or other contraband. When they are looking to charge a person with a drug crime, Indiana’s law enforcement officers and prosecutors are going to want to find evidence that their suspect was in possession or selling drugs. This is why officers are so eager to search a suspect’s car, person or other belongings. They figure if they can find illegal drugs, securing a conviction for a drug crime is all the easier.

The laws related to searches and seizures are fact-intensive

In many circumstances, police do have the power to search an Indianapolis resident’s car, personal belongings, and even the person’s body, often without a warrant–if the facts are objectively in line with a specific exception to the constitution right to be free from unreasonable searches. State and federal law, including the Fourth Amendment, puts strict limits on what the police can and cannot do.

For example, police are allowed to search someone when they are arresting them–if the arrest itself is supported by probable cause to arrest. However, since this search is supposed to keep the officers safe, how far they can go in searching a person is limited. This scenario is often referred to as a “search incident to arrest.” Police also may search cars, but only if they have the consent of the driver of the vehicle, or a good legal reason, called probable cause, to believe that they will find drugs or other evidence of a crime in the car.

Law enforcement may try to coerce or railroad a person into providing consent. It should be noted that giving consent is not required and it is actually viewed legally as a waiver of the constitutional right that many know as the warrant requirement of the Constitution. These situations are examples of a number of exceptions that the courts recognize to the warrant requirement. A short list of court recognized exceptions include:

  • Consent
  • Search incident to arrest
  • Plain view searches
  • Exigent circumstances

A “plain view search” involves police allegations that the officer viewed contraband in the car that was in plain view when the officer was in a place that he or she was legally entitled to be. In short, viewing drugs or drug paraphernalia openly visible on the console of the car, while standing outside the driver’s side window during a routine traffic stop. The theory is that cars are mobile and the evidence could be easily lost if the officer does not conduct a further search. There is no expectation of privacy to contraband that is out for anyone to see. And courts have ruled that viewing drugs, even a small amount of contraband, provides sufficient reasonable suspicion to further search the car.

Challenging a search

No one facing a drug charge should just take for granted that the police acted properly when they searched for contraband. Even a search warrant can in some circumstances be challenged. Someone facing a charge is well-advised to go over the matter with an experienced criminal defense attorney.

In some cases, a person may be able to convince a court to disallow all evidence related to the drugs or other contraband. This may lead to dismissal of the case.

Depending on the circumstances, a drug conviction can lead to severe penalties, including years or even over a decade in prison. For just about anyone, getting in legal trouble over drugs is a major cost in terms of time, stress and money. Drug crimes can also have other personal and professional consequences that are far-reaching.