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BlogDid the Police Find Drugs in Your Car During a Routine Traffic Stop? The Police May Have Violated Your Rights

It’s an all too common scenario: the police make a routine traffic stop for some small infraction such as failing to use your turn signal. The next thing you know, the police are searching your car - looking under the seats, in the trunk, in the glove box, and rifling through your possessions. Then they find drugs and you’re charged with, at a minimum, possession of a controlled substance. The next thing you know, you’re being told that you could be facing jail time and a drug conviction on your permanent criminal record.

We are taught to trust the police to do the right thing. We’re trained to give them our full cooperation. As a result, many of us give our consent when they ask the question, “do you mind if I search your vehicle?”

Many people don't stop to consider that the police may have violated their rights. These violations can be intentional or inadvertent, but in either case, there is a good chance that any evidence gathered through an illegal search can be thrown out. In cases involving drugs, this usually means that the prosecution will be forced to drop the case, allowing you to move on with your life as if the arrest never occurred. To determine whether the police violated your rights during a traffic stop, call the Law Offices of David S. Chesley today at 800-755-5174 or contact us online.

When Can the Police Pull Me Over?

Under both California law and the United States Constitution, citizens have the right to be free from "unreasonable search and seizure." This means that the police cannot stop and search you or your car for no reason. It also means that they have to have a valid reason just to pull you over in the first place. Granted, they don't need much of a reason - a broken tail light is sufficient - but they need some reason to make the traffic stop.  If they don't have a reason to stop you, the stop is illegal, and any evidence obtained as a result of the stop will not be admissible in court.

Once Pulled Over, That Doesn’t Mean They Can Search Your Vehicle

That said, having a valid reason to pull you over is not necessarily a valid reason to subsequently search your vehicle. A routine traffic stop for something like failing to use your turn signal does not give them a basis to search your vehicle inside and out.  Generally speaking, the police need a search warrant to search your car.  Otherwise, the police can only search your car in one of the following situations:

  1. You have given the police permission to search your vehicle.
  2. The police have “probable cause” to believe that there are illegal substances or other evidence of a crime.
  3. The police are arresting an occupant of the car, and the occupant is within reaching distance of the interior, or the police have reason to believe that the car contains evidence of the crime for which the occupant is being arrested.
  4. The police are temporarily detaining one of the occupants of the car and have reason to believe that the detainee is dangerous and has access to weapons stored in the car.
  5. The car has been impounded by the police and they are conducting an inventory of the contents of the vehicle.

The first situation is obvious - the police can search your car if you give them permission.  That’s why it is very important to remember that if they do not have a warrant, you do not have to give the police permission to search your car. Of course, if they search your vehicle without a warrant and you did not give permission, the police have clearly violated your rights.

The third and fourth situations are closely related and also fairly straightforward. When arresting someone or temporarily detaining someone, the police can do a quick sweep of the area within the person’s reach for the officers’ own protection and in order to make sure the suspect doesn’t destroy evidence. When arresting someone, the police may be able to search the vehicle if they have reason to believe there is evidence of the crime for which the suspect is being arrested.

The fifth situation applies only in very few cases. The police are entitled to make an inventory of all items inside an impounded vehicle, and can accordingly search the vehicle.

The second scenario is the most difficult, and also the most common scenario where the police may violate your rights.

What is Probable Cause?

Because vehicles are so easily moveable, the law makes an exception and allows for warrantless searches if the police have probable cause that the vehicle contains evidence of a crime.  A police officer has “probable cause” when he or she knows of facts that would justify the issuance of a search warrant.

Here are some examples of probable cause that would allow a police officer to search the vehicle without a warrant:

  • An officer attempts to pull over a vehicle, and the car speeds off, driving recklessly and obviously intending to avoid arrest.
  • The officer observes the occupants of the vehicle attempting to dispose of or hide narcotics.
  • During a routine traffic stop, the officer observes drugs in plain sight.
  • The officer has been informed by an eyewitness that there are drugs in the vehicle.

Probable cause may sound simple, but it’s actually very complicated. There are a number of exceptions and, depending on the circumstances, probable cause may not entitle the officer to search certain parts of the vehicle. The police believe that they always have probable cause. To the contrary, just about any criminal defense attorney can tell you that is not the case and that many of their clients have been subjected to illegal searches because there was no probable cause.

The Police Cannot Stop You for an Unreasonable Amount of Time

The police are entitled to make a traffic stop and detain you for only a “reasonable” amount of time. This allows them to check with the DMV for your driving and vehicle records. However, they are not allowed to stop you indefinitely. While there is no set amount of time considered to be reasonable, your rights may have been violated if you were stopped for longer than 30 minutes without evidence of some other crime.

You Have the Right to Remain Silent

Many people are surprised to learn that you do not have to answer the officer’s questions. If you have informed the officer that you would prefer to remain silent, the officer cannot threaten or coerce you to answer their questions. Refusing to respect your right to remain silent is a violation of your rights under the Constitution and California law.

Contact a Los Angeles Drug Charge Defense Attorney

Law enforcement is aggressive in charging and prosecuting drug offenses, often at the expense of citizens’ rights and civil liberties. If you or someone you know has been charged with a drug crime as a result of a traffic stop, it is critical that you talk to a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. If your rights have been violated, you may be able to get the charges dismissed when the prosecution would be urging you to plead guilty. Don’t let the prosecution make you another statistic while ignoring your rights.

With over 50 years of courtroom experience, the attorneys at The Law Offices of David S. Chesley have the knowledge and skills you need for a fair outcome. Call us at 800-755-5174 or email us today if you would like a free consultation.