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Do you have Fourth Amendment rights when you’re in a vehicle?

On Behalf of | Apr 7, 2024 | Criminal Defense

Most people are aware that police can’t typically search their home or office without a search warrant signed by a judge. The warrant needs to specify what areas they can search and what they can “seize.”

When a police officer pulls over someone in their car, however, people are often less clear on just what that officer is legally allowed to do when it comes to looking around in their vehicle, telling them to open the trunk and taking things that are suspected to be evidence. An officer who is conducting a traffic stop likely doesn’t have a warrant – especially if this was a stop based on something the driver allegedly did that was a traffic violation.

Searches of vehicles aren’t explicitly covered in the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. Obviously, there were no vehicles at the time in the sense that we know them today.

Court rulings have clarified when vehicle searches and seizures are legal

The U.S. Supreme Court, however, has addressed this common scenario in various rulings over the years. About a century ago, as motorized vehicles became more common, the court rules that as long as the traffic stop was valid and there was probable cause for believing the vehicle contained evidence of a criminal offense, an officer could search it without a warrant. The reasoning is two-fold. First, a driver could just drive off if they chose, so police don’t have time to wait for a warrant. Second, a person’s expectation of privacy is lower when they’re in a vehicle on a public road than it would be in their home or other property.

Challenging evidence obtained during a traffic stop

This doesn’t mean a person doesn’t have the right to challenge the use of items taken from their vehicle during a traffic stop as evidence of criminal activity. A common challenge is that there was no valid reason to stop the vehicle in the first place. Everyone’s heard stories of people being stopped and questioned about what they were doing in the area, whether the vehicle was theirs and who their passengers were. Many people have experienced this themselves.

If items obtained during a traffic stop are used to make a case against someone, they have the right to argue that evidence wasn’t legally obtained. Having experienced legal guidance is a good way to determine whether this and/or other defense strategies may help to serve a particular defendant’s interests.