A police officer in Florida can pull you over if they have reasonable suspicion that you violated the law. For instance, they might notice you have a broken taillight, or you might have been weaving between lanes.
The traffic stop itself can be an intimidating experience. Still, things can get even more nerve-wracking if the officer asks or begins to search your vehicle. Although you might not have anything to hide, an authority figure going through your things and possibly finding something they could use against you can be frightening.
You may wonder what your rights are when it comes to a vehicle search following a traffic stop. In short, police don’t necessarily need a warrant to look through your car. A few exceptions exist, allowing for a warrantless search. However, if the officer oversteps their lawful boundaries or violates your rights when going through your vehicle, options may be available to have evidence thrown out at court, weakening the prosecutor’s case.
An Illegal Search and Seizure
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects you from unlawful searches or seizures of your person or property, including your vehicle. Generally, law enforcement officers need a warrant to go through your belongings. Absent the warrant, the search may be deemed a violation of your rights.
When police officers don’t have the proper documentation to search someone’s property, their conduct is considered illegal. As such, any evidence they gathered, such as narcotics, may be deemed inadmissible and not be used in court.
When Police Officers Can Conduct a Warrantless Search
Not all warrantless searches are unlawful. In limited circumstances, law enforcement officials may be able to search your car even without a warrant.
Below are a few of the situations when officers don’t need a warrant:
- Probable cause. The officer who pulled you over might have probable cause to believe that you were involved in a crime or that drugs might be found in your car. Probable cause means that the facts in the circumstances would cause a reasonable person to come to the same conclusion as the officer. For instance, the officer might have probable cause to search your vehicle if they smelled marijuana or you told them narcotics were in the car.
- Plain view doctrine. The plain view doctrine says that police officers can conduct a warrantless search if evidence of a crime is visible. For example, if the officer who pulled you over sees through the window a bong in your passenger seat, they could conduct a warrantless search.
- Incident to arrest. The officer may look through your car for narcotics if they have arrested you.
- Consent. You may be subject to a warrantless search if you give the officer permission to look through your things. Provided you have given your consent, the officer can examine your belongings even if they did not have probable cause, nothing was in plain view, or they had not arrested you. For a search to be lawful, your consent must have been given freely and voluntarily. Thus, if the officer used coercion or other forceful tactics to get you to comply with their request, they have violated your rights.
What to Do If an Officer Asks to Search Your Car
During interactions with law enforcement officials, you do not have to consent to anything or answer an officer’s questions during a traffic stop. Police officers may use their position of authority to make it appear as though complying with their requests is a person’s only option. It’s not. You can politely refuse to consent to a search. Declining the officer’s demand may be difficult, but it could help your case later.
If you tell the officer they can’t look through your things, but they proceed regardless, do not interfere with them. Trying to stop or resist them could lead to criminal charges and penalties. The violation can be addressed in court.
Fighting Criminal Charges After a Vehicle Search
Police officers tend to discover illicit items, including controlled substances, after a traffic stop. Their findings can lead to criminal charges, such as drug possession or drug sales.
Depending on your situation, various defenses can be raised to challenge the accusations against you. For instance, you could argue that the officer’s search of your vehicle was unlawful, or the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to pull you over. Claims such as these can result in evidence being excluded from your case, making it difficult for the prosecutor to try to convince a judge or jury of your guilt.
Whatever your situation, attacking criminal allegations is complex. You must know how to analyze the evidence and fully understand your rights. A criminal defense attorney can help with the nuances of your case, protecting your best interests and pursuing a just outcome on your behalf.
For the legal counsel you need in Miami, call Hager & Schwartz, P.A. at (305) 330-1360 or submit an online contact form today. We offer an immediate initial consultation.