One of the most frequent situations in which people are arrested for drug possession in Pennsylvania is during a traffic stop in which a police officer searches a car for drugs and arrests one or more of the occupants. This should not be surprising, as the police generally need a search warrant to enter a home, and most people generally interact with the police when they are being stopped on the road rather than being stopped while walking or sitting. But it raises the question of whether the police actually have the right to search a car for drugs in light of our Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. The law on this issue is surprisingly complex and continues to evolve as the Supreme Court addresses new situations involving automobile searches, but here are a few basic principles to keep in mind.
The Police Can Search Whenever You Provide Consent
One of the most common, if not the most common, methods by which a police officer will attempt to search a car for drugs is through obtaining the driver’s consent. If the driver does consent to the search, and no duress was used in obtaining that consent, then the search will generally be legal. Although police officers will often attempt to convince a driver that providing consent will make things “easier” on the driver, there is little evidence that is ever the case, and a driver with contraband in the car has little to nothing to gain in providing consent to the officer to search the car.
The Police Can Seize What is in Plain View From Outside the Car
If the police officer have reasonable suspicion to detain you in your car – meaning they can point to facts which indicate you violated a law such as speeding or changing lanes without a turn signal – then they can also seize whatever they can see in “plain view” from outside the car. Thus, if an officer sees drugs or drug paraphernalia sitting on your backseat or next to you without entering the car, the officer can seize those items.
The Police Have a Limited Right to Search if You Are Arrested
If you are placed under arrest by the police after being stopped, then the police have the right to search your immediate wingspan within your car for weapons and/or evidence of a crime relating to your arrest (e.g. an open bottle if you were arrested for DUI).
The Police Can Search Your Car if They Have Probable Cause
Aside from the above exceptions, a police officer will generally need to have probable cause to search your car for evidence of a crime. Probable cause exists where the total amount of facts available to a police officer at the time the search is made would lead a reasonable person to believe contraband is in the specific part of the car being searched.
Get Legal Guidance on a Search that Has Occurred
Law enforcement officers frequently misapply the standards described above either intentionally or out of ignorance to justify searches that are actually illegal under state and federal law. By working with an experienced criminal defense attorney, you can call into question the legality of a search of your automobile and potentially have the evidence that was seized thrown out of your prosecution for a drug crime.
Speak with a PA Criminal Defense Attorney Today
If you have been charged with or are under investigation for any drug-related crime in Pennsylvania, The Martin Law Firm, P.C., in Montgomery County, may be able to help. Contact us today for a free consultation with a PA criminal defense attorney today to discuss your circumstances.