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When Can an Officer Search Your Car?

Often, after pulling over a vehicle as part of a routine traffic stop, police officers will ask to search the vehicle. Drugs, guns, and other evidence of criminal activity they find during these searches end up as evidence in criminal cases. However, police officers are not always permitted to search the entirety of a vehicle. An experienced Florida criminal defense attorney may be able to get the evidence suppressed and the charges dropped if the officers acted inappropriately.

No search without consent or probable cause

Americans have a right under the Fourth Amendment to be free from unlawful search and seizure. If an officer witnesses a traffic infraction, he or she can stop the car and look for evidence of a crime that is already in plain sight. The officer can ask for the driver’s license, proof of registration, proof of insurance, and run the plates to see if anything is amiss. Assuming the car is not reported stolen, the traffic violation is not in itself criminal, and there is no other problem with the vehicle or driver (such as an outstanding warrant), a police officer cannot go ahead and search areas that are not already in plain sight, such as the contents of the trunk, glove compartment, a purse, or cell phone, without probable cause to believe a crime has been committed. Responding “yes” if an officer asks whether there is anything he should know about may constitute probable cause.

If the traffic offense is also criminal, such as driving under the influence (DUI), then the officer can place the suspect under arrest and search the entirety of the vehicle. This “search incident to arrest” also has limits; the officer likely could not, for example, search through the arrestee’s cell phone without a search warrant.

Additionally, if a driver gives permission to the officer to search the car, the officer does not need probable cause and the driver’s consent removes any chance to later object to the search in court. The driver is free to refuse when the officer asks to search the vehicle, assuming the officer does not otherwise have probable cause of a crime.

Evidence obtained in an illegal search cannot be used against a defendant

A recent case covered in the Miami Herald illustrates what happens after an unlawful search and seizure: Miami-Dade police officers pulled over a car after the driver cut off the patrol vehicle. The officers seized several guns, including assault-style rifles, almost $20,000 in cash, suspected marijuana oil and alleged prescription-strength narcotics. The driver and his wife insisted that they had permits for the guns (they did) and that the cash was from the wife’s cash-heavy job as an exotic dancer. Because the officer never received permission to search the car, and had no probable cause to believe a crime was committed, the prosecutor was forced to drop all charges related to the guns and suspected drugs, and the police department was ordered to pay the legal bills of the driver and his wife.

If you or a loved one have been arrested or charged with a crime in Florida, find out your rights and defenses by contacting the experienced and knowledgeable Vero Beach criminal defense lawyer the Law Office of Keith Bregoff for a free consultation at 772-492-8967.

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