Many people think of law enforcement officers as civil servants who uphold the letter of the law. Although that is true for some, others may have more questionable motives for some of the tactics they use. Specifically, law enforcement officers have a financial incentive to find evidence of drug crimes, especially if the individuals suspected of such crimes have substantial assets or cash on hand.
During a roadside traffic stop, officers may profile a driver and attempt to fabricate a reason to search their vehicle in the hope of finding contraband. If they do, they may be able to seize the cash that the individual has, as well as the vehicle, in some cases.
Understanding when law enforcement has the legal right to search your vehicle can help you better stand up for yourself during traffic stops and when facing criminal charges or dealing with civil asset forfeiture due to a traffic stop.
Police can search the vehicle if they have evidence of a crime
Sometimes, officers can know as soon as they approach a vehicle that a crime has taken place. Perhaps the vehicle has a strong stench of illegal narcotics or alcohol. Maybe there is visible drug paraphernalia or illegal weapons in the trunk or backseat of the car. Perhaps the driver already has a warrant out for their arrest.
In most situations where law enforcement officers have a reasonable belief that a crime had taken place or would take place, the courts will uphold their decision to search a vehicle. However, police cannot simply search your vehicle because they want to or because of how you speak to them.
Police can search your vehicle if you let them
One of the simplest ways for cops to get permission to search a vehicle is just to ask for it. In many cases, drivers will bravely offer up the right to search their vehicle, not understanding that even something as small as a single marijuana seed that had fallen out of the pocket of a passenger weeks ago could result in an arrest and an even more in-depth search.
Although it can be a rather intimidating experience, denying law enforcement the right to search your vehicle protects your civil liberties against consequences from evidence you may not know is there.
Police may also search vehicles if they obtained a warrant to do so
Sometimes, law enforcement wants to search a vehicle because they believe the driver has previously participated in criminal activity. They could be looking for traces of drugs or even bodily fluids that could be evidence of a violent crime.
In that situation, instead of conducting a traffic stop, law enforcement officers will likely go to a judge and get a warrant. If law enforcement presents a warrant, you will have to allow them to search your vehicle. However, you do have the right to validate the warrant and ensure that it is accurate and valid before allowing the search.
Those who believe law enforcement violated their rights during a search may be able to have some or all evidence excluded from their court proceedings. Consulting with a Memphis attorney can help you determine if that outcome is likely in your situation.