When Can the California Police Search My Car?
Oxnard police recently arrested a 22-year-old man on suspicion of driving under the influence. After detaining the suspect, officers searched his car and found a gun. As a result, he was charged with possession of a concealed firearm in a vehicle in addition to DUI and reckless driving. Was the search that led to the firearm lawful? If it had been a routine traffic stop without alcohol involved, would the answer change? Continue reading for answers to these questions about police search, and contact an experienced Ventura criminal defense attorney if you’ve been arrested for a crime in Southern California.
The police can search your car as part of a lawful arrest
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees citizens freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. California also has its own search and seizure laws which are more protective of defendants than the strict constitutional limits. At the outset it is important to note that a police officer can search you or your belongings and use anything they find against you if you consent to the search. Know your rights to know when you can refuse.
Whether and how a police officer can search a person or their vehicle without a search warrant or consent depends on the circumstances of the incident. The easy case: Officers can search a suspect incident to a lawful arrest. If they are arresting the occupant of a car, they can search the car either (a) if the suspect is within reaching distance of the interior of the car, or (b) if the officers have reason to believe the car contains evidence related to the instant crime. Upon a DUI arrest, officers can generally claim they were looking for alcohol or other evidence of intoxication in the vehicle. There are limits to this search: For example, if police arrest a suspect for DUI, they likely cannot search the suspect’s phone without a search warrant.
Additionally, if the vehicle is impounded as part of the arrest, officers are allowed to conduct an “inventory search” of the car, and any criminal evidence found can be used against the suspect.
Probable cause, plain view, and “stop and frisk”
Outside of the context of an arrest, an officer must have additional reason to search a car. In a routine traffic stop, assuming the car is not stolen and there is no other obvious criminal issue with the car or driver (such as an outstanding warrant), a police officer needs probable cause of a crime in order to search beyond plain sight. If evidence of a crime, such as an open alcohol container, is in plain view, then police can collect that evidence. Otherwise, the officer cannot go on and search areas not in plain view such as the trunk, glove compartment, or a purse or cell phone. In order to perform the search, the officers would need probable cause to believe a crime had been committed, such as if they witnessed the driver conducting a drug deal from the car.
Additionally, even if the police are just detaining you for questioning, they may be able to search you or your car if they have reason to believe you are dangerous or possess weapons. This is known as “stop and frisk.”
If your rights are violated, the evidence should be excluded
If the police find evidence of a crime while lawfully searching your car, that evidence can be used against you, even if the evidence has nothing to do with the reason they originally searched your car. For example, if they search your car for alcohol and find an illegal weapon, you can be convicted on weapons charges.
On the other hand, if the police conduct an illegal search, your lawyer can move to have the evidence excluded from the case against you. What may otherwise appear to be an unwinnable case can be completely derailed by an experienced attorney who finds that the police acted unlawfully during your arrest. This can lead to reduced charges or even the prosecutor throwing out the case entirely.
If you’re facing charges of driving under the influence, unlawful possession of a firearm, or other crimes in California, get effective, knowledgeable, and seasoned help fighting these charges by contacting the Ventura offices of Paul Tyler for a free consultation at 805-889-9000.