Police officers searching a car
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Police use many tools to uncover evidence of criminal activity. Search and seizure is one such avenue, but under the law, it must be conducted with either a search warrant, the consent of the property owner, or enough probable cause that neither is required. 

What is probable cause and how does it relate to vehicle searches?

Understanding the Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution covers “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” It also specifically states that warrants for search and seizure must be based on probable cause.

Under the law, a search would include authorities examining a person’s property, typically to find specific items related to suspected criminal activity. Search activity could include entering a residence or business, going through a vehicle, asking a person to empty their pockets, or conducting a frisk.

In most cases, authorities are required to obtain a search warrant before they can conduct search and seizure operations. Whether they’re looking for evidence of drug use, theft, fraud, or violent crimes, they generally need probable cause before a judge will issue a warrant.

That said, there are exceptions, such as instances of imminent danger of property damage or harm to a person. Authorities may also be able to conduct a search if a person is placed under arrest, and if you give your consent, a search may be conducted without a warrant.

If you’re unsure if you’ve been the victim of an unlawful search, an experienced criminal defense attorney can help you understand whether you have a case.

What constitutes probable cause?

Before you can determine whether a search is legal, you need to answer the question, “What is probable cause?” While there are no precise parameters for probable cause when it comes to searching a car, it generally means that there’s a fair probability that evidence is located inside the car.

How do authorities determine this? They may get a tip from a credible witness, or they might have evidence (such as surveillance footage) that a crime was committed using the vehicle. These could both be enough to secure a search warrant.

Vehicles have slightly less protection than a home because they are in public and there’s a lower threshold for reasonable expectation of privacy. For this reason, police may legally be allowed to search a car without consent or a warrant under certain conditions.

One of these conditions is if contraband is in plain sight, such as on the seat where an officer could see it through a window. If you have open containers, drugs, or weapons visible during a traffic stop, an officer may search your car. If you’re arrested for DUI/DWI or other offenses, this could also be grounds for a warrantless search.

What You Should Know About Car Searches and Drug Charges

Consulting with a criminal defense attorney should be your first course of action if you believe you were the target of an illegal search. 

Suppose that you were pulled over for a traffic violation such as speeding or a broken tail light and an officer decided to search your vehicle with no evidence in plain sight and no other form of probable cause. 

If any evidence of contraband, such as drugs, is found during this illegal search, that evidence is considered fruit of the poisonous tree and it cannot be used in court.

Protecting Your Rights

The law protects you against illegal search and seizure, but you may need a qualified criminal defense attorney to look out for your best interests. Understanding search and seizure limits and answering the question “What is probable cause?” is just the beginning of formulating your defense.

Are you in need of a criminal defense lawyer in South Carolina? Contact the Law Office of Mo Abusaft now to schedule your free consultation.