When Can The Police Search Your Car Without A Warrant In Arizona? Know Your Rights.

Aug 15, 2023 | Criminal

Nearly everyone feels uneasy when pulled over for a traffic stop, but that can quickly transform into fear if the law enforcement officer decides to conduct a search of your vehicle. You have rights that should protect you from having your property searched without a warrant, but that doesn’t mean it never happens. While the unlawful search alone can be troubling, the situation may be more intense if you obtain charges as a result. In this blog, we’ll be discussing factors related to vehicle searches in Arizona, and what to do if you were charged because of a search you feel was unlawful. 

The Fourth Amendment: Your Protection From Unlawful Search And Seizure

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution is the overarching law that prohibits unlawful searches and seizures by the government and protects citizens from them. However, that does not mean that citizens are protected from all searches and seizures. A lawful search would need to be deemed reasonable in the eyes of the law and is usually defined as one that has a legitimate reason, such as a threat to public safety. 

Moreover, motor vehicles were not yet invented when the Fourth Amendment was penned. But since it was enshrined over 300 years ago, there have been several court cases that have shed more light on the conditions that make a vehicle search lawful or unlawful as it relates to the Fourth Amendment. 

Court Cases And Their Rulings

Carroll v. U.S. (1923): Police stopped a vehicle they knew to be operated by a known smuggler of alcohol during prohibition on a road that was a frequent route for smugglers to bring the contraband into the U.S. from Canada. The vehicle was pulled over and searched, and the illegal whiskey was found hidden behind the upholstery. The Supreme Court ruled that the search of the vehicle was lawful because law enforcement had probable cause. Furthermore, the Court highlighted the difference between searches of stationary property, such as stores or dwellings, and searches of vehicles, which may be moved quickly and rid of evidence. Therefore, with probable cause, a warrantless search may always be conducted under the mobile conveyance exception. 

Arizona v. Gant (2009): A man was lawfully arrested for driving with a suspended license. After the man was handcuffed and placed in a squad car, the officers went on to search his vehicle and discovered a gun and drugs. The charges stemming from this search were ultimately dropped because the Supreme Court determined that the search of his vehicle was unlawful. They ruled that officers may only search a vehicle “incident to arrest” if two conditions are present: first, the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment when the search is conducted; second, it is reasonable to believe that evidence relating to the arresting crime is in the vehicle. 

Collins v. Virginia (2018): Police entered private property to determine if a motorcycle parked on the property was a stolen motorcycle, which they had also observed violating traffic laws at another time. The bike was covered by a tarp, and law enforcement lifted that tarp to confirm that it was the one they were searching for. Law enforcement argued that because they had probable cause, the search was lawful, but the Supreme Court ruled that the mobile conveyance exception does not permit officers to enter private property to search a vehicle without a warrant. 

Circumstances That Justify A Warrantless Search Of Your Vehicle In Arizona

As established in Carroll v. U.S., law enforcement can conduct a search of your vehicle without a warrant if they have probable cause. This means that they have a reasonable belief that a crime has occurred (which does not include minor traffic violations). Some examples of probable cause may be:

  • Drugs, drug paraphernalia, or weapons within plain sight of the officer
  • An odor of drugs or alcohol
  • Statements of witnesses
  • A driver admitting or offering information
  • A reasonable belief that the vehicle search is necessary for officer safety

It is also important to note that the search should only be conducted in areas where the officer suspects there may be evidence of the crime that has occurred. For example, if the officer believes you have stolen a microwave, they would not have probable cause to search your center console because a microwave would not fit there. 

In addition, if the owner of the vehicle consents to a search of the vehicle, law enforcement does not need to obtain a warrant to do so. 

Finally, your vehicle may be searched if you are being placed under arrest. However, as established in Arizona v. Gant, the search may only be conducted when the suspect is unrestrained and could access a weapon inside the vehicle, or the police believe that evidence pertaining to the arresting crime is inside the vehicle. 

When Warrantless Searches Could Be A Violation Of Your Rights

As established by Collins v. Virginia, police should not enter private property to search a vehicle without a warrant. Homes and dwellings benefit from stronger protection under the Fourth Amendment. Under these conditions, the search would be considered a violation of your rights, and therefore unlawful. Other unlawful search conditions include a lack of your consent and a lack of probable cause. 

How A Criminal Defense Attorney Can Fight Charges That Stem From An Unlawful Search 

Any charges sustained from an unlawful search of your vehicle by a law enforcement officer should be dropped due to the violation of your rights. However, you will need a thorough and experienced attorney who can review the details of your case and present evidence that proves the search was unlawful. This is accomplished by finding weaknesses or discrediting any witnesses who contributed to law enforcement having “probable cause” to search your vehicle, proving that you felt threatened or were coerced into giving them consent to search your vehicle, or presenting a convincing argument that casts doubt on the “probable cause” they used to justify your search. 

Call Alatorre Law Today If You Were Charged Because Of A Vehicle Search

If you were charged due to a search of your vehicle, you have options. Having an aggressive and knowledgeable criminal defense attorney on your side can play a major role in the outcome of your case. Our lead attorney, Javier Alatorre, has nearly two decades of experience fighting for the rights of clients and has built a reputation for achieving optimum results for them. Call today to schedule a free initial consultation where you can tell your story directly to Mr. Alatorre and get an honest appraisal of your circumstances. 

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