One of the most complex and difficult situations to determine one’s rights is how the Fourth Amendment is applied in instances of vehicle searches as the result of traffic stops. The Fourth Amendment states that “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” However, as cars were not yet invented in 1789 upon the writing of the Bill of Rights, the Supreme Court has had to reestablish how these rights apply to individuals in moving vehicles. So when does a police officer have the right to search your vehicle?
After a vehicle stop, an officer may search your car without a warrant if he/she gets consent, has exigent circumstances, sees illegal contraband in plain view, or performs a search incident to lawful arrest or probable cause to believe contraband is in your vehicle.
There are two important points to know in regards to consent: the person giving consent can limit the scope of the search and consent can be withdrawn at any point.
Your right to privacy in your car is less than in your home
The right to privacy is less in a person’s car than a person’s home under the 4th Amendment. Thus, sometimes-exigent circumstances (emergency) will justify an officer searching your vehicle without a search warrant.
Many times a driver will notice that an officer approaches a vehicle very slowly. They are doing this for two main reasons: 1) protection and 2) to have more time to glance into your vehicle. If an officer sees illegal contraband in plain view in your vehicle, they would then be authorized to go into the vehicle and grab it. That evidence would also usually support probable cause to continue searching the entire vehicle.
An officer used to be authorized to search your entire vehicle if they placed you under arrest for a traffic violation or a criminal offense. This was known as (and still is) a search incident to lawful arrest. Given the fact that officers are usually authorized to arrest someone for any traffic offense this certainly could give rise to abuse by law enforcement if a driver refused to give consent, the officer did not have probable cause, nor did the officer see anything in plain view but they still had a hunch that something illegal was inside the vehicle.
The United States Supreme Court limited the applicability of a search incident to lawful arrest with the decision in Arizona v. Gant. The court held that, “circumstances unique to the vehicle context justify a search incident to a lawful arrest when it is ‘reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle.’ In many cases, as when a recent occupant is arrested for a traffic violation, there will be no reasonable basis to believe the vehicle contains relevant evidence. Thus, officers still may conduct a search incident to lawful arrest, but only in limited situations now. However, officers are now getting around these limitations by impounding the vehicle where no other available driver is present and conducting inventory searches, which are justified by liability concerns. As a result, a sole occupant of his vehicle may still have his vehicle searched even without consent, probable cause or because it was a search incident to lawful arrest.
Probable cause can lead to police searches
Law enforcement may also search a driver’s vehicle if probable cause exists that contraband is located inside. What amounts to probable cause is determined by each case’s individual facts and the slightest change in facts can support probable cause in one case, but have a search be ruled a violation of the defendant’s 4th Amendment violation.
It is also important to point out that it is illegal under the Georgia Code to own or operate a vehicle with any false or secret compartments that could contain controlled substances, weapons, or other contraband. According to the code these compartments may include, but are not limited to: false, altered, or modified fuel tanks; original factory equipment on a vehicle that has been modified; or any compartment, space, or box that is added or attached to existing compartments, spaces, or boxes of the vehicle. Regardless of what such compartments may contain, their very existence is against the law, and could result in serious fines or jail time.
Because cases of vehicle search are so prevalent, the laws are constantly being modified. If you been arrested and evidence was obtained during a search of your vehicle or even home for that matter, it is important to contact a local attorney to discuss possible defenses and the legality of the search under applicable Georgia law.