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HomeBlogSearch and Seizure: Part 3

The 4th Amendment and You

In the most recent article we talked about the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protections surrounding your home, but what about your car? This article will discuss what can happen if a law enforcement officer wants to search your car.

As we discussed in the previous article, your expectation of privacy is what determines how protected you are under the Fourth Amendment. Your expectation of privacy is at its utmost in your home or on yourself, but unfortunately it’s not as high in your vehicle. When you drive around in public anyone looking in can see the entire inside of your car. We have formerly talked about the “plain view” doctrine, which means officers do not need a warrant to seize illegal evidence that they can see without any digging or searching. Since it’s easy to see something illegal in plain view in your car, it’s important to understand these issues. An officer, therefore, cannot search in areas not in plain view without “probable cause.” For comparison, probable cause is also the standard by which a law enforcement officer obtains a warrant, so it’s a pretty high standard. As discussed in a previous article, probable cause means there is a high probability that a crime has been, or is being, committed.

There is an exception to this, of course. An officer has the right to search the vehicle when his safety may be at risk. This only applies to areas not in plain view, but in immediate reach of the driver or anyone in the car at the time. This means under the seat, in the glove compartment, or any containers you have in the car. Yes, containers in the car are treated as if they were part of the car. That means a suitcase, purse, backpack, briefcase, or anything that may be in the car can be subject to search IF the officer can already legally search the car. So if the officer has a reasonable suspicion that you may be armed and dangerous, they may conduct a search of the car within reach of you for their safety. It’s important that you alert an officer if there is a lawful weapon in the car; for example, if you have a concealed-carry weapon and permit. For this exception, the situation requires that the officer feel unsafe. For example, if you’re handcuffed and placed in the back of the police cruiser, it’s unlikely the officer will feel unsafe and therefore would not be legally able to search your vehicle for weapons without probable cause. Keep in mind that probable cause to arrest you (or put you in handcuffs and in the car) is NOT the same as probable cause to search your vehicle.

To summarize, probable cause to search your vehicle means that there’s a strong chance there is illegal activity in your car. That can’t mean a hunch, or that the officer is having a bad day or just doesn’t like you. It also doesn’t mean “reasonable suspicion,” which is the lower standard that justifies an officer to stop your car. This means it is apparent that you are doing something illegal in your car. For example, North Carolina courts have held that a person being pulled over for a DWI can result in probable cause to search the vehicle. If someone is drunk in the car, there’s a good chance the reason the person is drunk is in the car—liquor, open containers, drugs, etc. This allows the officers to search. The Supreme Court of the United States has held that a warrant for arrest also gives an officer probable cause to search based on the warrant’s details.

Thanks for reading. We hope these articles shed some light on your rights as citizens of the United States. Stay tuned and stay informed!

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