An officer has limitations when searching a vehicle. Any search of a vehicle must start with a valid stop. A valid stop includes any reasonable belief that a traffic violation has occurred or some other violation of the law. Often times the outcome of a case hinges on whether or not the stop was valid. An example of a valid stop is pulling someone over for not having their headlights on at night. An example of an invalid stop is pulling someone over after seeing they just left a bar, in other words, pulling someone over based on just a “hunch” that the driver might be inebriated.
Once a vehicle is stopped an officer can only search the car if they have consent or “probable cause”. “Probable cause” can be easy to establish, but it comes with limitations. To give some examples, if a driver is stopped and the officer believes that the driver has illegal firearms, the officer may search the vehicle only where those illegal firearms may be. The officer cannot search small containers that couldn’t contain the firearms.
In order for an officer to search for drugs in a vehicle, the officer must have probable cause to believe drugs are in the vehicle. If the officer smells marijuana, or sees drug paraphernalia (blunt, pipe, etc.) that will be enough to search for the drugs. What an officer cannot do is search for drugs just because someone in the vehicle might have something based on their criminal record, race, appearance, etc.
If an officer asks you to step out of the vehicle you should do so. It does not necessarily mean you’re “under arrest”, but you could likely be “in custody” (more on this in later blogs so stay tuned). Once you’re out of the vehicle the officer may pat you down to ensure that you’re not carrying weapons. However, if you have drugs or paraphernalia on you that could feel like a weapon, that could be used against you.
The bottoms line is that car searches are incredibly complex and each situation is different. The worst thing you could do is attempt to fight drug charges by yourself thinking that the stop or search was invalid. There are dozens and dozens of exceptions to all the rules I explained above. If you’ve been charged with a crime based on evidence found during a traffic stop call me at 216-200-6765. Get the legal help you deserve to fight these charges and move forward with your life.