Is the Exterior of a Vehicle Protected from Searches by Reasonable Expectation of Privacy?

A growing number of Utah residents are now realizing they have rights regarding unreasonable searches of their vehicle, but does the exterior of a vehicle have the same reasonable expectation of privacy?

Interior searches on vehicles

Photo by: West Midlands Police

An officer does not have permission to search the interior of a person’s vehicle unless they have permission, a warrant, or probable cause to do so. If the driver does not make the common mistake of trying to be overly agreeable by allowing an officer to perform an unreasonable search on a car, then the officer has to have a probable cause to search the car. Probable cause can include drugs in plain view or if the driver was going to be arrested anyway for a DUI, warrant, or other crime. If there is no probable cause for a search, it is okay to politely decline an unreasonable search.

Exterior searches of vehicles

Law enforcement are permitted to do a visible search of the exterior of a vehicle and this type of search should be expected during a traffic stops. If something illegal on the exterior of a vehicle is visible to the police officer, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. Some exterior searches can go too far however. If an officer brings out a forensic kit, then the search could be headed towards a Fourth Amendment rights violation against a person’s belongings or property.

Fourth Amendment violation

Reasonable Expectation of Privacy?

Photo by: West Midlands Police

An owner of a vehicle has possession of the entire car, not just the interior. Fingerprints, DNA, or other possible microscopic evidence on the vehicle that is not visible to the naked eye should be protected. If a driver leaves their car temporarily unattended in a public place, this does not give law enforcement permission to then swoop in to perform forensic searches of the car. Even when not occupied, the vehicle is still considered to be in their possession of the owner. Otherwise, they would not be liable for anything related to the car in their absence, such as parking tickets.

Possible rights violation? Ask an attorney prior to court date

If a search has been made of the interior or exterior of a vehicle and the proper channels were not followed to conduct those searches, anything found could be thrown out in court. It is important to discuss whether or not there is an option to dismiss evidence from unreasonable search and seizures. A qualified criminal defense attorney can help defendants fully understand their rights regarding searches and seizures and whether or not they had a reasonable expectation of privacy during a police search.

Pretextual Stop Gives Police Probable Cause to Search a Vehicle

Anytime a Utah resident is pulled over for a minor traffic violation, that incident has the potential to become a pretextual stop, or an opportunity for police to find probable cause to search a vehicle.

Suspicious vehicle

Pretextual Stop

Photo by: Tony

There are times when law enforcement sees a vehicle that they would like to search but they have no probable cause to allow them access to it. The vehicle may be “suspicious” by fitting a certain profile that would allude to possible criminal behavior by the vehicle’s occupants or officers may want to search a car to help an unrelated investigation. Instead of waiting for a crime to be committed by the driver or getting a warrant to search the car, the vehicle may be followed until it makes a minor traffic violation instead.

Broken taillight = probable cause for a search

Speeding, switching lanes without signaling, no seatbelt, and even a broken taillight are all reasons that police can use to pull a car over and issue a citation. These simple traffic stops can also give law enforcement the opportunity to find probable cause to search a vehicle. A planned traffic stop with a hidden agenda is referred to as a pretextual stop, or an opportunity for law enforcement to search a vehicle for a reason that is actually unrelated to the traffic violation.

Whren v. United States

Photo by: Blogtrepreneur

In 1995, Whren- a driver of Mexican descent- was traveling along a stretch of road known as being a major drug trafficking corridor. Officers spotted Whren and proceeded to follow him for over 20 miles. Eventually a couple minor traffic violations such as failure to use a turn signal at a stop sign and speeding were made. This gave officers the opportunity to pull the vehicle over where they noticed narcotics in Whren’s hand. In court Whren attempted to have the evidence surpressed due to the pretextual stop violating his Fourth Amendment rights, however that motion was denied and he was ultimately convicted.

Pretextual stop not unconstitutional

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures that are conducted without probable cause. Unfortunately, the United States Court of Appeals stated in Whren’s case that a pretextual stop did not violate Whren’s Fourth Amendment Rights. They explained: “the temporary detention of a motorist upon probable cause to believe that he has violated the traffic laws does not violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable seizures, even if a reasonable officer would not have stopped the motorist absent some additional law enforcement objective.” They went on the further clarify that “Detention of a motorist is reasonable where probable cause exists to believe that a traffic violation has occurred.”

Limits to a pretextual stop

Photo by Drew Stevens

Although the U.S. Court of Appeals determined a pretextual stop to be constitutional, there are limits to what officers are allowed to do once a vehicle is stopped. A pretextual stop allows an officer to pull over a vehicle for a traffic violation but not necessarily to search the vehicle. In order to conduct a search, officers would have to have a warrant or probable cause to do a search. Probable cause might include:

• Seeing contraband in plain view;
• Smelling of illegal drugs by an officer or K9; or
• Observing activity that gives officers reasonable suspicion of a crime such as reckless driving that could indicate alcohol consumption or drug abuse.

If an officer cannot find probable cause to search a vehicle during their pretextual stop, they may ask the driver for permission to search. In an effort to cooperate with law enforcement, many individuals wouldn’t dare saying “no” when asked if officers can look in their vehicle. This is often a major loophole that police use to search a car without probable cause. While being respectful, it is perfectly acceptable to refuse officers to do a vehicle search. If they search a vehicle without probable cause, a warrant, or permission and find evidence of a crime, drivers are encouraged to wait politely but silently and have legal counsel discuss the unreasonable search during court. The evidence collected would likely be dismissed along with related charges. With all cases regarding a pretextual stop or illegal searches and seizures, it is recommended to obtain the aid of a criminal defense attorney. An experienced attorney will help ensure that no constitutional rights have been violated and that all searches were made lawfully.

No Drugs Located after Drug Dog Alerted on Vehicle

Utah motorists may wonder what their rights are regarding searches from a drug dog of their car and what to do when no drugs are located after an alert on a vehicle.

Sniffing isn’t considered searching

Drug Dog

Photo by: David Beach

Just as an officer is allowed to look in a window to see if drugs are in plain view, a drug dog is allowed to sniff vehicles without a warrant as it doesn’t violate any rights of the motorist. The inspection by the drug dog cannot cause the motorist to be detained while the dog sniffs around however. It has to be done during the same time that an officer is performing a traffic stop for a legitimate reason.

Probable cause

If a sniffer dog alerts after sniffing a vehicle, he is giving his handler some kind of a sign, however subtle, that there are drugs in the vehicle. Once the dog has alerted, the officer then has probable cause to search the vehicle. Any drugs confiscated from that point are done so with probable cause and can be used as evidence in court.

Drug dog false alarm

One issue that occasionally comes up when a drug dog alerts during a traffic stop is that no drugs turn up inside the vehicle. When this happens, motorists may wonder whether or not the dog actually alerted on the vehicle. They may just be grateful that the alert turned out to be a false alarm and be on their way. However, their constitutional rights may have just been violated by the officer and that should not be ignored. For more information on your Fourth Amendment rights during a traffic stop, especially when it involves a drugdog contact a criminal defense attorney immediately.