You’re driving home after a nice dinner and you see those red, white, and blue lamps light up behind you. Your stomach drops as you look down to the dashboard. Was I speeding? Maybe he’s going to go around me. You slow down and pull over and the officer follows suit. You roll down your windows, turn on the interior car lights, place your hands on the steering wheel, and wait for the officer.
Unbeknownst to you, a pickup truck with the same color and model as yours was just used in an armed robbery in the parking lot of a nearby grocery store. The officer orders you out of the car, demands your ID, and immediately handcuffs you. He sees you have a license or permit to carry a concealed weapon and starts rifling through your truck, looking for your gun.
Even though the officer realizes you aren’t the robber, he finds the gun and accuses you of carrying it or transporting it illegally. He doesn’t like your attitude and puts you in the back of his car. Are you arrested? You weren’t given any Miranda warnings. What should you do? In a previous video, we discussed the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, what a search warrant is and the most common exception to its requirement: consent.
We’ll cover how an officer can search your vehicle regardless of your feelings on the matter. The Fourth Amendment presumes that a police search without a warrant is unreasonable. To beat this presumption, there must be a compelling interest in police or public safety, the preservation of evidence, or both. We’ll cover exceptions to the warrant requirement most commonly encountered when driving a vehicle.
First up, the automobile exception. In Caroll v. United States, the Supreme Court held that an automobile is more difficult to secure and detain than a building or property when the police seek a search warrant. This rationale has expanded to allow warrantless searches of automobiles because there’s a lessened expectation of privacy in vehicles. The interior of the vehicle is open to plain view and cars are subject to government regulations.
There is also a lower expectation of privacy in a car and in its compartments, containers, and packages contained or transported inside. The law requires police have a reasonable suspicion that a violation of the law has occurred to instigate a traffic stop. Then, the police must establish probable cause that the car or its compartments and containers hold evidence of a crime for a legal warrantless search.
Now, let’s talk about the search incident to arrest exception. Courts have long held it reasonable for a police officer to search a person who is placed under arrest for weapons and evidence of a crime. The original rule made it reasonable to search an arrested person’s body and clothing but was later expanded to include any objects the person may have in their possession.
In Chimel v. California, the Supreme Court increased the search area to any place within the person’s immediate control at the time they’re arrested, because an arrested person could lunge or grab for a weapon or evidence lying nearby. This is known as the Wingspan Rule. Let’s visit how these two exceptions play out together during roadside stops.
In Belton v. New York, the Supreme Court ruled that if a driver was arrested for any reason, the driver and the car’s interior (including containers or bags) could be searched by police without a warrant. However, the police must still have probable cause that a crime has been committed or will be committed to search the trunk without a warrant. The Supreme Court expanded these rules to include when a person is outside of a car they just exited, their vehicle may be searched if it is reasonable to believe that it may contain evidence related to the offense for which they were arrested. However, the Supreme Court has limited this type of warrantless search in Arizona v. Gant, so that if a person is no longer able to access the inside of the car, or there is no probable cause to believe that it contains evidence of the offense, the police cannot proceed with a warrantless search. Finally, courts have long held that police may search an arrested person’s entire vehicle and trunk when it’s impounded. This is known as the Inventory Rule.
Returning to our roadside example, the officer had reasonable suspicion to stop you because of the similar truck involved in a robbery. It was also reasonable to order you out of your truck and detain you to make sure you weren’t the bad guy. Finally, most courts would likely find it reasonable for him to search your truck and seize your firearm if you were arrested for a weapons violation, thanks to the warrant exceptions we’ve just discussed. What if the officer was completely wrong about arresting you? You’d most likely avoid a conviction, but not without a free ride to jail and an introduction to the pains of getting your gun back from the police after your case is closed.