Auto stops and searches

Cars receive scant protection under the Fourth Amendment. Courts give considerable deference to police officers’ determinations of reasonable suspicion, and courts are steadily increasing the constitutional latitude of the police to pull over vehicles.

The police may stop a car upon reasonable suspicion to believe a traffic offense has been committed.

Police authority to search

Upon stopping a car, police may:

  • Ask for the driver’s registration and license and ask identifying questions.
  • Shine a flashlight inside and seize whatever they see in plain view.
  • Move papers to look at the vehicle identification number, and order the driver and passengers out of the vehicle.

The occupant’s suspicious behavior, such as furtive movements and refusal to obey the officer’s orders, may justify a pat-down of the vehicle’s occupants.

The U.S. Supreme Court has re-written the rules on the permissible scope of a search incident to the arrest of a recent occupant of an automobile. Formerly, the arrest of a car’s recent occupant justified a search of the entire passenger compartment and any containers found therein, even if the occupant was arrested outside the car, handcuffed and removed from any access to the car.

The Supreme Court now holds that an officer may search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant’s arrest only when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search or when it is reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle. Since the police usually will handcuff and secure arrestees so they cannot access the car, the search-incident-to-arrest exception seldom will justify auto searches, especially when the arrest is for a traffic offense because the auto is unlikely to conceal evidence relevant to the crime.

However, if the police issue the driver a citation for a traffic offense rather than arresting him, they may not search the car or frisk the driver, absent articulable reasonable suspicion that the driver poses a danger.

If the stop is for a traffic violation, the resulting detention must be reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified the stop in the first place. Actions or questioning that are unrelated to the stop’s justification and that unduly prolong it may render the detention unreasonable and any evidence gained during the period of delay suppressible.

If furnished with probable cause to believe that the automobile contains evidence of a crime, the police may forego a warrant and search it and any containers within it that may hold the evidence.

Challenge the reasonable suspicion or probable cause

Faced with the automobile stop and search rules, your criminal defense attorney’s best approach to an automobile search is to challenge the reasonable suspicion for the stop or the probable cause to believe the car contained evidence or contraband.

Even if you are a passenger without any ownership interest in the car, a car stop seizes you as well, and you have standing to suppress anything seized from within the car or from your person as a result of the stop.