The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects you from unreasonable search and seizure by the government. Under this Amendment, a traffic stop is considered a seizure. As long as the police officer had reasonable suspicion to pull your car over due to criminal activity such as a traffic violation, this is likely a lawful seizure.
Usually, a routine traffic stop ends with a warning or citation and the driver can leave. However, when it is not so simple and a vehicle search ensues, familiarizing yourself with the law behind search and seizure can serve you well.
When are vehicle searches legal?
Generally, a police officer may search your vehicle when:
- The officer can provide a reasonable and articulable suspicion that requires the search.
- You consent to the search.
- You are under arrest.
- The officer reasonably believes they are in immediate danger (i.e., suspicion of a concealed weapon).
What is the plain view doctrine?
Under the plain view doctrine, without having a search warrant, police may seize evidence of a crime if it is in plain view. For example, if an officer sees drug paraphernalia in the backseat of your car after stopping you for running a stop sign, they may seize the item. This doctrine also extends to evidence that a police dog or officer can smell or hear after your traffic stop.
Overall, if the police have no legitimate reason to pull you over and inspect your vehicle, they are conducting an illegal search and seizure. As a motorist, understanding lawful vehicle searches after a traffic stop may help protect against unlawful search and seizure.