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Know Your Rights: Can the Police Search Your Car?

Posted by Malcolm Anthony | Jun 07, 2022 | 0 Comments

It's important to know your rights when you're dealing with the police. We recently touched on how to approach Florida DUI checkpoints. We believe it is a good practice to know how to deal with the different scenarios we may encounter with Florida law enforcement officers, and one of the most common interactions that people get wrong is when they're pulled over while driving.

The moment you see the police lights flashing behind you can be a bit disconcerting, even frightening. Your adrenalin begins to elevate, you wonder what you did wrong, you begin to estimate the cost, etc. Your next thoughts may be: is there anything in my car that could get me into additional trouble and can the officer search my car for it?

The 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 12 of the Florida constitution, specific State and federal statutes, as well as established case law specifically protect your right to be free from unreasonable government searches and seizures, especially without a warrant. The rights within a vehicle are more limited, but still exist. The police will need a specific and reasonable justification in order to search your car.

Fourth Amendment Protection

The 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution specifically provides protection from unlawful searches. It provides “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”

Right up front, this means police don't have the right to search you or your property. The constitution was written before the advent of vehicles, but the Supreme Court extended the definition of the Fourth Amendment to include vehicles, but since vehicles can be moved quickly and easily, the Supreme Court allows several exceptions to the warrant requirement when a vehicle is the subject of a search. When you're pulled over, police can't just walk up to your car, ask you to get out, and go about searching your vehicle, but if they possess “probable cause” to believe it may contain evidence of a crime, they may search it without your consent. To avoid the necessity of probable cause, police may often request your consent to search the car. They need no reason to make this request.

When Police Can Search Your Car

So, when do those exceptions to the warrant requirement apply?

Common scenarios in which police will have justified probable cause include:

  • Illegal drug paraphernalia readily visible through the window of your vehicle
  • Open containers readily visible through the window of your vehicle
  • Unsecured weapons are readily visible through the window of your vehicle
  • A noticeable odor of drug use emanating from your vehicle
  • You admit or give a noticeable indication of the presence of illegal substances or unsecured weapons in your vehicle

In the case of weapons, police have a right to search for those weapons to protect themselves and the public without securing a warrant prior to the search. However, you are legally permitted to have a secured firearm in your vehicle as long as the gun is securely encased. If you notify the police of a legal and secure firearm, this is not enough for them to search your vehicle and seize your firearm.

Police dogs are another common tactic the police will use to extend a traffic stop and conduct a search. A drug detection canine alerting on your vehicle provides the requisite probable cause to permit a warrantless search. Remember, police may not unreasonably extend the time for a traffic stop in order to wait for a canine unit to show up.

When Police Can't Search Your Car

Short of these exceptions, police are not permitted to conduct a search of your vehicle. Officers will often try to skirt these rules by claiming they smell or see something, but you should remain calm and refuse the search in those cases. You can also request a higher-ranking officer to respond to reaffirm your rights.

Without probable cause or reasonable suspicion, officers can only search your vehicle if you give consent. If an officer asks to search your vehicle, you should never say yes even if you believe you have nothing to hide. The search can only open you to additional risk instead of protecting your freedom.

If you believe the police searched your car without a warrant and without probable cause, all of the evidence they gathered will be inadmissible in court. Contact a Florida criminal defense attorney right away in this case.

At Malcolm Anthony, P.A., we want to protect your freedom and preserve your future. We know Florida laws and can fight back when police violate your rights. Contact us and let us get you out of trouble.

About the Author

Malcolm Anthony

Jacksonville, FL Criminal Defense Attorney​​​​​​ If you've been charged with a crime, you need the determination and experience of criminal defense attorney Malcolm Anthony on your side. As a Jacksonville area criminal defense attorney, I am a seasoned lawyer with a high success rate in criminal...

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