One of the most frequent issues in criminal cases is the legality of a search by a police officer. The Fourth Amendment protects you from unreasonable searches and seizures. Generally, this means that police need a warrant to execute a search, or to stop a person for more than a few moments. The Supreme Court, however, has ruled that the Fourth Amendment’s protections are limited in the case of vehicles.
Police need some reasonable suspicion that a person has broken the law in order to stop a vehicle. That means that if an officer has reason to believe that the driver of a vehicle has broken almost any traffic law, he can be pulled over.
While police need only reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle, to execute a search, they require probable cause to believe that the occupants of the vehicle are engaged in a crime, and that evidence of the crime will be found in the vehicle. An example of this is the smell of marijuana. If an officer smells marijuana, an illegal substance in Arizona, he has probable cause to believe that the occupants of the vehicle are in possession of marijuana, and that the marijuana is located somewhere in the car.
It seems like a simple concept, but search issues can get complicated. Police often have a strong suspicion that a crime is being committed but lack any evidence as the basis for their hunches. In situations like these, officers often attempt to draw out the stop to develop more information. Common tactics include asking drivers to exit the vehicle on the premise that the officer wants to talk about issuing a warning, asking permission to search to gauge a driver’s reaction, or engaging the driver in small talk so the officer can claim the stop became consensual. The last is often used while the officer awaits the arrival of a canine unit.
If you or a loved one has been arrested for a crime following a vehicle search, please call us. We offer free consultations and can help you understand your rights.