Are the Police Allowed to Search My Vehicle?

Officers must have a valid warrant or claim an exception to search your vehicle.

Not unless they have a valid search warrant, or a narrow search warrant exception applies. The Fourth Amendment guarantees the right to be free from unreasonable law enforcement searches. Under the law, searches are unreasonable if officers did not have a warrant and an exception did not apply, regardless of the other facts in the case.

Prosecutors must present enough evidence in court to convict defendants beyond a reasonable doubt. That is the highest burden of proof in Georgia law. So, the more proof a Norcross criminal defense lawyer excludes, the better the chances are of successfully resolving the matter. This successful resolution could be a plea to a lesser-included offense, a lighter punishment, a pretrial dismissal of charges, or a not-guilty verdict at trial.

Search Warrant Requirements

To search a vehicle or any other personal property, an officer must submit a search warrant affidavit to a judge. This affidavit must show probable cause.

An affidavit is a written legal document that is signed and notarized. An affidavit is a sworn statement in which the officer swears the statements contained in that document are true. An affidavit is not verbal permission from a judge.

Most police officers do not patrol the streets with notaries and judges in their squad cars. Since everything happens so fast in vehicle searches, there is usually no time for an officer to execute an affidavit and present that affidavit to a judge. So, most vehicle searchers rely on search warrant exceptions. More on these exceptions below.

Probable cause is a nebulous legal standard of proof that is somewhere between reasonable suspicion, which is an evidence-based hunch, and beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the standard of evidence at trial.

Probable cause is on the low end of this scale. In 2015, a federal judge in Iowa ruled that police officers had probable cause to pull over a man who was speeding 1 mph over the limit, even though officers knew 1 mph was within the RADAR gun’s margin of error and the charges would not hold up in court.

Search Warrant Exceptions

Plain view, owner consent, and the automobile exception are the three most common search warrant exceptions in vehicle search and seizure matters.

Officers do not need warrants to seize drugs, weapons, or other contraband substances they see in plain view. This exception isn’t as straightforward as it seems.

First, officers must legally be at that place at that particular time. If officers did not have reasonable articulable suspicion to pull over the motorist, the stop was illegal, and any evidence they seize is inadmissible in court. Second, partial plain view matters, like a pistol handle protruding from underneath a car seat, are in a gray area.

Owner consent is slightly less controversial. Even still, only the owner or an apparent owner, like a vehicle driver who doesn’t own the car, may give consent. Furthermore, the consent must be voluntary. If Officer Jones threatens to get a warrant if Mike does not consent to a vehicle search, Mike’s consent is arguably coerced.

The automobile exception does not come up very often. It only applies if officers have probable cause to believe that there is evidence of a crime in the vehicle. When officers have such suspicions, they usually ask for consent or detain the motorist until they obtain warrants.

Work With a Diligent Gwinnett County Lawyer

In some cases, the police are allowed to search your vehicle. For a free consultation with an experienced criminal defense lawyer in Norcross, contact Zimmerman & Associates, Attorneys at Law. The sooner you reach out to us, the sooner we will start fighting for you.