Say you are driving your vehicle in Pennsylvania and a police officer stops you for a standard traffic violation, such as failing to signal or speeding. The officer conducts a search of your vehicle, finds drugs in the trunk and arrests you. You are now facing drug charges. Was the officer legally allowed to search for drugs in your car? The answer is: it depends.
Generally, the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects you from illegal search and seizure in places where you have a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as your home. While you legally have less of an expectation of privacy in your vehicle, the Fourth Amendment is still in effect when it comes to your vehicle.
An officer is allowed to search your vehicle if you have given consent or if the officer has a valid search warrant. An officer can also search your vehicle if you have been arrested for drug possession and the vehicle search is for drugs or other items related to your arrest.
In most routine traffic stops, none of these things are true. Without consent, a drug-related arrest or a warrant, the officer is required to have probable cause to search your vehicle for drugs. This means that the officer must have a reason to suspect that you, someone in your vehicle or the vehicle itself was involved in a crime at the time of the stop or earlier. For example, if an officer smells marijuana, sees that your eyes are bloodshot or otherwise has reason to suspect drug use, the officer may have the authority to conduct a search of the car. If the officer sees drug paraphernalia or drugs in plain view through the window of the car, the officer is permitted to seize those items and conduct a more thorough search of the car.
However, officers are not legally permitted to search your vehicle based on a hunch or “gut feeling.” If an officer conducts an illegal search of your vehicle and seizes drugs in your vehicle without a legally valid reason to do so, the evidence they found may not be admissible against you in court. A criminal defense attorney can review the facts of your case and attempt to help suppress any illegally obtained evidence.