The People’s Lawyer

When can the police legally search a vehicle?

On Behalf of | Oct 31, 2022 | Criminal Defense

Restrictions on police searches are largely related to where people have an expectation of privacy. The greater the expectation of privacy, the less the police are free to search. When there is a low expectation of privacy, police have more power to search.

Expectations of privacy

When West Virginians are inside our homes, we usually have the greatest level of privacy. We can lock our doors and shut the blinds so only people we want to have inside are able to see inside.

When we are at events or in public settings, we usually have the least amount of privacy. Outside of what we may be able to put in a bag, anyone in the area could see everything we are doing.

Inside a motor vehicle, we are in something of a middle ground between being inside our homes and being in public. Cars have windows, and they travel on public streets where anyone can see them and see much of what goes on inside. However, there are places in the car such as the trunk or glove compartment where people can conceal different items.

Given this middle ground, the police. Police can pull people over for any traffic violation, but they can only search the inside of the vehicle in certain circumstances.

Situations when police can search a vehicle

Police can search a vehicle after a valid stop if they have probable cause to believe that there is evidence of a crime in the vehicle.

They can also search a vehicle if the driver gives either written consent or oral consent to the search. Any search conducted outside of these requirements is an invalid search.

Police in West Virginia often find evidence of different crimes inside motor vehicles. For instance, many drug arrests come about after a routine traffic stop in which police are able to search the vehicle and find evidence of illegal drug activity.

It is important that the searches are done lawfully though. If the search was unlawful then any evidence found inside the vehicle could be suppressed and without the evidence convictions for the crimes become unlikely. Defendants need strong defenses in these situations and experienced attorneys may be able to guide people through the process.