Can Police Search My Car For Drugs Without A Warrant in Florida?

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Russell A. Spatz - Criminal Defense - Super Lawyers

Answered by: Russell A. Spatz

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The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides individuals with protection from unreasonable searches and seizures. Many people have heard of the warrant requirement of the Constitution that safeguards individual rights. However, the warrant requirement is not absolute. When it comes to a search of an automobile, police may search a vehicle without a warrant in many situations. 

Courts recognize that when a person is in public, driving a car on the road, they have a lower expectation of privacy than they do if they were in the privacy of their own homes. What is reasonable under the circumstances is often dependent on the location of an encounter or interaction with police. 

Vehicle searches are often tied to a traffic stop. Before determining whether the search itself was lawful, it is critical to analyze whether police were in a lawful position to conduct the search. Members of law enforcement are not allowed to pull over a vehicle on a whim. Police must have a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to lawfully pull over a car. If police conduct a traffic stop without a sufficient basis to do so, evidence uncovered in a subsequent search of the vehicle may be deemed fruit of the poisonous tree – justifying suppression of the evidence from any criminal case. 

Consent To Search 

Members of law enforcement may ask a driver for consent to search the car. Constitutional rights may be waived, if the waiver is voluntary. Many drivers are unaware that they can decline to give consent for the search. Police know this and may ask drivers for consent to search the car. In the absence of some other lawful basis to conduct a search, as described below, if the occupant declines a search of the car, police cannot lawfully rummage through the vehicle. 

It is important to note that police must lawfully be in the position to seek consent, and the consent must be voluntary. If the initial traffic stop was conducted without reasonable suspicion, the unlawful stop may taint the subsequent search. Similarly, consent must be voluntary. The use of coercion or threats to obtain consent may invalidate the search. 

Probable Cause To Search 

If police have probable cause to believe that contraband is in the vehicle, they may search the car without a warrant. This is often called the automobile exception and is based on the lower expectation of privacy that courts recognize for people in automobiles. Here, a simple hunch is not enough to support probable cause. 

Probable cause is a determination based on the reasonableness of the reasons provided in support of probable cause. For instance, if police view any contraband, drug residue or drug paraphernalia in plain sight within the vehicle during a lawful traffic stop, they may have probable cause to search the entire vehicle. A tip from another individual called in to the police indicating that contraband is in a specific car may support probable cause. These issues are different in every case and require thorough legal analysis to determine whether the initial stop and the subsequent conduct in developing probable cause are valid and lawful. 

Search Incident To Arrest And An Inventory Search 

If police lawfully take the driver of the car into custody during a traffic stop, they may tow and impound the car. In these situations, members of law enforcement may search the immediate area of the car near the occupant for officer safety, as well as the person. When the car is towed, police may search the entire car to document the contents of the car. This is essentially considered an administrative search. When police impound the car, they create a list of property contained in the vehicle to have an inventory to ensure that property is not lost or stolen during the period of impoundment. Courts also allow inventory searches for the purposes of police safety. 

While the general rule allows police to search a car without a warrant, they do not have carte blanche to do so. The reasonableness of the traffic stop and subsequent conduct under the circumstances should be reviewed. Police make mistakes, and an unlawful traffic stop or search conducted without a reasonable basis to do so may support a motion to suppress evidence obtained in violation of a driver’s constitutional rights.

Disclaimer: The answer is intended to be for informational purposes only. It should not be relied on as legal advice, nor construed as a form of attorney-client relationship.

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