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When Can a Cop Search Your Car in South Carolina?

When Can a Cop Search Your Car in South Carolina?

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The Fourth Amendment protects against unlawful seizure and search. Typically, it prohibits arbitrary motor vehicle searches by law enforcement officers. If police officers search your vehicle without your permission, a warrant, or a valid reason, they're violating your legal rights. However, there are some limited scenarios where police officers can search your vehicle without a warrant or your consent.

With motor vehicle searches, the law gives law enforcement officers more leeway compared to when they're trying to search a residence. That's because, under the "automobile exception" to the police search warrant requirement, the law recognizes that people have a lower expectation of privacy when driving a motor vehicle than when they're in their homes.

It’s essential to note that although the U.S. Constitution sets the minimum level of protection for one’s constitutional rights, states are free to offer more protection for a person’s privacy rights. Thus, they could pass laws placing greater limitations on police officers when it comes to conducting warrantless searches. If you have been a victim of an illegal police search in Greenville, South Carolina, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney on your side as soon as possible. Call the Greenville criminal defense lawyers at Touma Law Group today at 864-618-2323 or send us an email to schedule a free initial consultation about your case.

In What Circumstances Can a Cop Search Your Car in South Carolina?

A police officer who pulled you out of traffic can lawfully search your vehicle in the following instances:

It’s essential to note that if you consent to a motor vehicle search, the evidence the police department gathers could be used against you in court. Also, it’s imperative to note that if you consent to the police car searches, you can revoke that consent at any time.

The Office Has Probable Cause

A police officer can search your car without a warrant when there’s reasonable suspicion to believe that your vehicle contains adequate evidence of a crime and that exigent situation because of mobility of the motor vehicle may cause the evidence to disappear if the search isn’t executed immediately. Probable cause is a daunting thing to explain because there’s no specific definition! Probable cause can vary based on the circumstances, specific facts, and situations of a specific encounter with the police.

Perhaps the police officer was driving behind you and saw you throw a bottle of wine out the car window. He or she immediately pulls you over. The law enforcement officer sees a bottle of wine laying on the ground. Here, the police officer most likely has reasonable suspicion to search your car for evidence that you may have been driving while drunk and for open containers of alcohol.

Greenville Criminal Defense Attorney Adam Touma

Or maybe the police officer received a reliable report that you were operating a portable methamphetamine lab in your motor vehicle from a reliable source and the report is believable. Based on this information, the law enforcement officer has a valid reason to believe you’re meth manufacturing in your car and has a reasonable cause to search your car.

However, it’s essential to note that police officers don’t need probable cause to walk a drug-sniffing dog around your motor vehicle, especially if you’re not detained for an unreasonable period of time while waiting on the dog. If the dog detects illegal drugs, by “alerting” their handler, that alert offers the law enforcement officer probable cause to search your vehicle.

Evidence of Criminal Activity is in Plain View

If a cop spots something illegal in your vehicles, such as a bag of marijuana, an illegal weapon, or items often used for drug use, that observation provides the police officer with the probable to search your vehicle without your consent or a warrant. Here, the evidence must be in plain view. “Plain view” is the only exception to the constitutional requirement for a warrant.

Related: Do You Need a Lawyer For Drug Charges in Greenville?

You’re Arrested

This is rule is known as the search incident to arrest. A body search is allowed once you’re under arrest. Based on the drug charge which you’re arrested for, the law enforcement official can expand their search to your car in pursuit of other evidence of that criminal offense or others. The police can search any area of your vehicle where evidence of your charged criminal charge might be found.

For instance, if you were arrested for a stolen TV the law enforcement officer saw in your backseat, TV sets don’t fit in glove boxes. Thus, the officer would be hard-pressed to suggest that he or she could search your glove box. But if you were charged, for instance, with simple possession of cocaine, cocaine can be stored anywhere in the car. Thus, the law enforcement officer can search the entire car without violating the Fourth Amendment.

Your Motor Vehicle is Impounded

Once you’re arrested, the law enforcement official may opt to have your car towed. If so, the police officer may search your vehicle thoroughly based on what’s called the “inventory” exception to the requirement for a search warrant. The logic is that having called for a wrecker to tow your vehicle, the police officer could be held liable should the third party steal or lose valuable items in your vehicle.

A police officer’s search of your vehicle under the “inventory exception” must be legitimate. An officer can establish the constitutional legitimacy of this search by making a written list or “inventory” of the items he or she finds in your vehicle during the search. If the officer doesn’t make a written inventory, your criminal defense lawyer in Greenville can make an argument in court to suppress any evidence the officer finds because their “inventory” search was a pretext to “toss” the vehicle when there was no other warrant exception available. 

What Should I Do If I’m Stopped by Police Officers in My Car? 

If you’re stopped by law enforcement officials in your car, you don’t have the right to refuse to provide your driver’s license, roll down your window, or step out of the vehicle when asked. If you don’t do any of these things, what could have been an uncomfortable but temporary police encounter can quickly escalate into prison time and even violence. So, what should you do when police officers stop? 

  • Remain calm. 
  • Comply with the police officer’s request for your driver’s license and other paperwork.
  • You can stay silent if you wish, and you need not answer any questions, but be polite about it. 
  • Also, your passengers can choose to stay silent. 
  • Politely refuse any consent to any police search.
  • Also, your passengers can refuse to consent to any searches. 
  • De-escalate the situation by not raising your voice. Also, don’t threaten or insult the law enforcement officers. 
  • Once the police officer has written you a ticket or warning, ask him or her “Am I free to go?” 
When Can Police Search Your Car in South Carolina?

If you or a loved one are charged with a drug offense after a roadside search for your motor vehicle, contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer immediately. There might be Fourth Amendment violations that a skilled Greenville drug charge lawyer can use to get key evidence suppressed or to win your case at trial. 

Police officers are trained in the legal concepts involving traffic searches and seizures and employ these concepts on highways and roadways at traffic stops and when investigating criminal activities. Law enforcement authorities have taken an oath to detect, investigate and enforce violations of criminal laws. Even so, your constitutional rights remain intact on roadways even among those limitations to the Fourth Amendment. 

At Touma Law Group, our criminal defense team wants to help you protect your constitutional rights. If you have been pulled over by law enforcement officers and believe that you were a victim of an unlawful search, give our Greenville law office a call at 864-618-2323 for a no-cost initial consultation. 

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