When can an officer legally search a vehicle for drugs?
If you are stopped by a police officer in South Carolina, your Fourth Amendment rights protect you from an unreasonable search and seizure of your property. To legally search your vehicle, the officer must have one of the following:
- A valid warrant: Generally, a warrant is issued after a petition to a judge and will allow law enforcement to execute it pursuant to the ‘four corners’ of the warrant. Any evidence discovered outside of the bounds of the warrant will be suppressed and cannot be utilized by the prosecution in a criminal proceeding.
- Consent: When a police officer stops a vehicle and asks to search the vehicle, it is well within that person’s right to deny the officer’s request. However, if the person consents to the search, the officer may search the vehicle.
- Probable cause: The concept of probable cause leaves a lot of room for interpretation, but generally, an officer is considered to have probable cause if he or she has a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed. The reasonable suspicion must be based on actual facts and circumstances surrounding the case, not just a feeling the officer has.
Officer may seize items in “plain view”
One allowable warrantless search of a vehicle can be executed when evidence of drug possession/trafficking is within ‘plain view.’ In other words, if an officer stops your vehicle and sees drug paraphernalia in the back seat, they can search your vehicle and seize the evidence, without consent or a warrant.
If police search your vehicle in violation of your Fourth Amendment rights and are not granted a good faith exception by the court, any evidence obtained in the illegal search will be suppressed pursuant to the exclusionary rule.