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Thoughts from a Branson, Missouri attorney.

When can the Police search your car?

lego checkpoint

Don't do drugs.  If you do drugs, keep them at home.  Almost every person that ends up in trouble with the law for drugs ends up in trouble because of drugs in their car. Although the right against unreasonable searches and seizures has been eroded considerably, there are still only certain circumstances where the police can search your vehicle.

1.  You consent.

This is the number one way people get into trouble.  The police can be violating every rule in the book making any evidence they have inadmissible, but if you consent to a search, game over. If you consent to a search, your options in court become a lot more limited. A terrible recurring thought that persists in the heads of people getting pulled over is this "If I say yes to a search, the police will think that I have nothing to hide, so they won't search."  Dear reader, please erase this thought from your brain.  The reason the police want your consent is not to test you to see if you have anything to hide.  They are getting your consent so they can search your vehicle without having to worry about an illegal search and seizure. 

But wait, you may be saying, I really don't have anything to hide! They can search if they want because they won't find anything!  Tell that to someone like Eric Dahl who rented a car and didn't know there was a pipe in the glove compartment. Or others like California psychiatrist Charles Preston who purchased a used Chrysler and 15 months later during a routine brake inspection found $500,000 worth of cocaine in the door panels. Ever let friends or your kids borrow your car?  Is it impossible that they dropped a joint, or even a single pill that may have been prescribed to them but that you don't have a prescription for?  (Remember, one pill is enough for a felony C conviction that could carry a sentence of 7 years in Missouri.)

Let's say right before you go driving, you do a thorough search of your vehicle, and are positive that you are not hiding anything illegal.  Should you consent to a search now?  NO!  Because although you are certain there are no drugs in your car, the police searching it believe there are and will do anything to find them including destroying your seats, breaking your locks, and even removing your dash.  That happened to Darren Richardson in New Jersey.  In that case, police ended up doing over $12,000 to his car and ended up finding nothing.  The car, a BMW, ended up being a total loss. 

The bottom line here, is NEVER EVER EVER consent to a search.  There is nothing good that can come of it.

2. Plain Sight.

Remember the beginning of this article when you read "keep your drugs at home"? This is another reason why. If while at your window the police see drugs or something drug related (like a pill bottle, plastic bag, or an open container) then they no longer require a warrant to search your vehicle.

3.   Inventory searches

If your car is impounded by the police, the police are required to search the car and list its contents.  This is done for at least three reasons.  First, police don't want to bring a car bomb to their parking lot.  Secondly, by doing an inventory of your belongings, you cannot later claim that your $15,000 wedding ring was in the car.  Third, and most importantly, this is another time when the police can look for drugs or other illegal things without the hassle of getting a warrant.

4.  Search incident to arrest

If you are arrested for any reason, the police can search your car if they believe that there is evidence of a crime somewhere in your vehicle. This can include drugs, stolen goods, or burglary tools. While this rule has been changed slightly due to a recent Supreme Court decision, Arizona v. Gant, it is still permissible for the police to search your car only if they believe that there is evidence of your crime in the car and you had access to the car during the time of the search.

5. Safety of the officer.

If the police believe that you pose a risk to them, they are allowed to search you and the areas you can reach to ensure that there are no accessible weapons.

This article may seem kind of lopsided in terms of the information regarding consent to searches against the other ways the police can search your vehicle. That is because most of the time, people consent to the search and it is the most easily preventable way to stay out of trouble. (Aside from not breaking the law). If you don't consent, you likely won't have to call us.  If you don't consent and still get in trouble and call us, there will likely be a lot more options available to you.

If you have been arrested and/or charged with a crime in Branson, Nixa, Ozark, Springfield, Greene County, Christian County, Taney County, Stone County, or anywhere in the surrounding area of Southwest Missouri, please schedule a free consultation today by calling (417) 334-6316 or by clicking "Contact Us" above.

Joshua Garrett
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