What someone has in their motor vehicle might connect them to criminal activity or give police officers grounds to arrest them. In theory, officers could abuse their authority by camping out in certain neighborhoods and searching as many vehicles as possible to find reasons to charge people with criminal offenses.
However, an individual’s basic protection against unreasonable searches and seizures prevents officers from stopping people without justification and searching their vehicle without cause. There are rules that determine when police officers can lawfully search someone’s motor vehicle in Florida. When is an officer allowed to go through someone’s vehicle during a traffic stop?
When they get permission
Perhaps the most common reason for officers to search someone’s vehicle is probably that the driver agreed to let them search. Many motorists, believing that cooperation will speed up the traffic stop, will agree to an officer’s request to search their vehicle and then end up detained and later arrested. There is nothing wrong with the motorist knowing and asserting their right to decline a search of their vehicle.
When they have probable cause
While officers cannot randomly attempt to enforce the law by stopping and searching people based on their location or their parents they can search specific vehicles when their interaction with someone gives them probable cause to suspect a crime has occurred. Smelling drugs in a vehicle would be one reason to search a vehicle without the permission of the owner. Seeing what looks like an illegal weapon or an open intoxicant in the backseat would also potentially justify an officer’s decision to search the vehicle.
When they secure a warrant
Occasionally, officers have reason to believe that a vehicle may have played a role in criminal activity and that there could be evidence in the vehicle still. In such scenarios, officers could potentially go to a judge and ask for a warrant to go through the vehicle to look for specific evidence, such as DNA from a crime victim or trace amounts of drugs.
Individuals who know when it is permissible for officers to search their vehicles may make better choices when talking to police during a traffic stop. Pushing back against illegal searches and other bad police behavior after seeking legal guidance may also play a major role in some people’s criminal defense strategies.