Were you pulled over for a traffic violation and are now charged with serious crimes after law enforcement conducted a warrantless search of your vehicle? Warrantless searches are a hotly contested area of criminal defense law. No two cases are alike, so each one requires careful examination to determine whether the police acted lawfully or infringed your rights under constitutions of the United States and Ohio.
The Fourth Amendment protects us against unreasonable searches and seizures, but this protection is quite limited when it comes to motor vehicles. The automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment allows warrantless searches of an automobile if law enforcement officers have probable cause to justify the search.
Probable cause requires facts or evidence that would lead a reasonable person to believe that a suspect has committed a crime. Situations where a police officer has probable cause to search your motor vehicle include:
- The officer sees contraband – such as illegal drugs – in your vehicle (plain view doctrine).
- The officer smells contraband – like marijuana – on you or your vehicle (plain view or plain smell).
As you might suspect, the probable cause standard often leads to a legal battle concerning whether the law officer truly had probable cause to search a vehicle under the unique circumstances of the case. The skill and experience of your criminal defense lawyer can make a big difference in the success of challenging probable cause.
Did you consent?
A police officer does not need probable cause if you consented to a search. Unfortunately, many Ohioans are unaware of their rights and consent to a warrantless search.
Many of our clients who consented to a warrantless search complain that they felt they did not really have a choice. Depending on the situation and personality of the driver, police officers use different techniques to persuade motorists to give consent to a warrantless automobile search.
Some of the things police officers say to persuade motorists include:
- “A vehicle search shouldn’t be a big deal and then we’ll get you on your way – unless you have something to hide?”
- “If you consent it will make things easier on you.”
- “We are going to get a warrant anyway. Why don’t you just let us search your vehicle and I’ll note your cooperation.”
If an officer asks for permission/consent to search your car, politely say no. Simply say, “I do not consent to any searches.” You need not explain why, even if you are asked. Remain polite but, if necessary, restate that you do not consent to a search.
What if the evidence was obtained unlawfully?
If law officers did not have probable cause – or consent – to search your vehicle, then your attorney may try to exclude resulting evidence through a motion to suppress evidence. Each case is different and requires careful arguments based on the specific circumstances involved. The skill and attorney of your attorney may play a crucial role in the success of your motion to suppress evidence and defending the charges you are facing.
For more about this topic – including the use of drug-sniffing dogs in traffic stops – visit our Drug Searches page.