There’s been a bit of controversy floating around the writer community about whether or not police officers can search a vehicle without a search warrant. Lets look at that issue and pick it apart a bit. It can be tricky.
1) If the driver of a vehicle is stopped for speeding can officers search his vehicle?
No, not without the driver’s permission. Even though a traffic stop is technically an arrest, there must be probable cause that leads an officer to believe an actual crime has been committed, and that evidence of that crime could be found inside the vehicle. Again, there must be probable cause!
2) Well, when can the police search a vehicle?
Police officers may search a vehicle without a warrant if they have probable cause to believe the auto contains contraband or the fruits of a crime. However, the vehicle to be searched must have the capability of being mobile. A car that’s been sitting on blocks in the back yard for nine years with its engine hanging from a tree limb doesn’t count. Officers would need a warrant to search that car.
3) Can the police search things that belong to a passenger in your car?
Yes. If the officers have probable cause to search your car for contraband, then tey may search anything inside where those items could be concealed. No warrant is needed.
4) Can the police pat down drivers and passengers?
Sure. If officers have a reasonable suspicion to believe an occupant, or occupants, of a vehicle is concealing a weapon, then they may conduct a pat down (frisk) search of those people. No warrant is needed.
5) Can police officers legally order you out of your car during a traffic stop?
Sure they can. If the officer feels his safety is in jeopardy he can order all occupants out of the vehicle. No warrant is needed.
6) Is it legal for a police officer to ask if she can search your car even though no crime has been committed?
Yes. Officers can, and do, ask if they can search vehicles. In fact, this is an excellent means of discovering contraband. You have the right to refuse a consent search, and, if you do allow the officer to proceed you can ask her to stop at any time. Once you’ve asked the officer to stop the search she must cease at once, unless she finds something illegal. Then she’ll place the driver under arrest and continue the search as a search incident to arrest. Obviously, if contraband is discovered, the driver can longer refuse to allow the search.
Most departments have pre-printed Consent To Search forms that they’ll have the driver sign stating he’s given the officer permission to search. The form is not required by law, but it’s nice to have if the officer does find contraband and takes the matter to court. Written permission is difficult to dispute.
No warrant is needed for a consent search. This also applies to residences and businesses as long as the person granting permission has the legal authority to do so, such as a homeowner, business owner, or renter. A landlord may not give police permission to search a tenant’s home.