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(As always, this isn’t to be taken as any kind of legal advice, just some very simplified basics for the lay person, and a little bit of ranting lawyer.)

I said in my last post I would put up the vehicle exceptions to the warrant rule in the next one.  Sorry it took me so long.

1. Search Incident to Arrest in a Vehicle:  Cops can search the inside of the car when they’re arresting you if: A. You may gain access to the interior of the vehicle.  This doesn’t happen a lot because duh, you’re in cuffs.  B. The cop has reasonable belief that evidence of the offense you’re arrested for may be found in the vehicle.  What counts as reasonable belief?  Depends on the jurisdiction but it’s less than probable cause.

2. And the one above doesn’t really matter because they can search your car when they get it to the lot after they arrest you anyway.  This is the Inventory Search.  They have to go through your stuff to catalog it and make sure you can’t go back at them later and say they stole anything.  At least that’s the reasoning, it really is just to look for evidence.

3. Of course, the obvious one.  A traffic stop!  Yep, they pull you over for speeding or not stopping fully at a stop sign, not signalling for a full three seconds, following too closely, ect… They pull you over for one of the thousands of ways you can violate the traffic code and then they look for evidence.

Now, obviously they can’t haul you out of your car and search for nothing.  They have to have probable cause that a crime, other than the traffic accident was going on.

The way this usually comes up is someone’s driving under the influence.  The cop stops him for whatever traffic infraction, smells alcohol, and has him get out of the car.  The smell of alcohol is probable cause enough to test you.  Other things could be the cops sees something suspicious in the back seat, notices your eyes look bloodshot and are dilated, cop smells some other distinctive drug smell (like marijuana) stuff like that.

Another thing that comes up is when they’re looking for drugs.  If there’s an indication drugs are there, they can look for them.  Yep, Lassie trained to find drugs can sniff up your car and if he barks that there’s something there, they can tear your car apart looking for it.

The reason they can go off probable cause and not bother with a warrant is because the evidence or the criminal could blaze away in a whirl of dust.  Technically they could do that just while they’ve been stopped but hey, it seemed like a good reason when the court came up with it.

Basically, if they want to search your car, they’ll come up with a reason to do it that will probably hold up in court.  Drive safe 😉

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