Criminal defense lawyers know that many cases, including drug possession offenses or firearms offenses, begin with a traffic stop that leads to a search of a car. In fact, many police officers interested in investigating the occupants of a car for an offense will look for any excuse to stop the vehicle. Often, the excuse will be a traffic violation, or a problem with the car, like a broken tail light. Many people are surprised to learn that these traffic stops – which are known as pretextual stops – are often legally valid.
But when are the police allowed to search a suspect’s car? Criminal defense attorneys know that in Houston, just like all over the country, once the police stop a vehicle they suspect might contain evidence of an offense, they will simply ask the driver or owner of the vehicle for consent to search. Most of the time, the police officer will not let the suspect know that he has the right to refuse a search, and that he has the right to have a criminal defense attorney present.
If a suspect refuses to allow the police to search his car, the police can still conduct a search in many cases. For example, criminal defense lawyers the smell of an illegal drug, like marijuana, can provide a legal justification for a search in many instances. If the police stop a vehicle and smell marijuana, they can usually search the vehicle for marijuana, whether the owner consents or not.
The police can also search a car if they obtain a search warrant. Although search warrants are commonly used to search homes, they are used less commonly in vehicle searches. That is because usually, the police will obtain consent from a driver for a search, or they see or smell something in the car that allows them to conduct a search without obtaining a search warrant. Also, criminal defense attorneys know that people have a reduced “expectation of privacy” in their vehicles, unlike homes or areas that are given more protection under the law.
It is important to remember that you always have the right to refuse a search of your home, vehicle or person. If you are arrested for drug possession, possession of a firearm, or any other criminal offense, it is important to hire a criminal defense lawyer well-versed in search and seizure law. Although people do have less of an expectation of privacy in their vehicles the police commonly perform illegal searches of vehicles which could lead to the suppression of evidence.