You are driving down the highway and the blue lights come on behind you. You pull over and the officer says to step out of the car so he can search your car and the bag you have in the backseat. What are your rights? What is the law relating to a search of your car?
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution states: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
This blog will focus on the law relating to the search of a car in Georgia.
A police officer is allowed to stop any car if the officer observes the car is violating any traffic law. This includes equipment violations, such as a taillight that is out. The police do not even have to see an actual violation of a traffic law if they see a sign that the driver may be impaired.
An investigatory stop of a car must be based on some objective manifestations that the person stopped is, or is about to be, engaged in criminal activity. Even if it is shown that no actual traffic violation occurred, the stop of the car can still be upheld if it was based on a reasonable mistake of fact or a reasonable mistake of law.
Once the trial court determines that the initial stop of the car was allowed, the issue then turns to whether the search of the vehicle was permitted.
If the driver gives consent to the search, this the search of the car is allowed.
But if the driver does not give consent? Does the officer have probable cause to believe that a crime has occurred. Often probable cause will develop during the initial questioning of the driver or other occupants of the car.
But what is the law for prolonging a traffic stop unnecessarily? In Rodriguez v. United States, the Supreme Court said that the duration of a traffic stop is determined by the legitimate mission of the stop and a traffic stop may not be prolonged, even for a few minutes, in order to engage in criminal investigation unrelated to the traffic stop. So the focus is on whether the officer is prolonging the traffic stop for a general criminal investigation.
If the duration of the stop is not excessive, the police may search the contents of the car and its occupant if one of the exceptions to the search warrant is applicable.
- The car may be searched if there is probable cause to believe that there is contraband or evidence of a crime in the vehicle.
- The car may be searched if the driver or another occupant is arrested and the search qualifies as a search incident to arrest;
- The car is impounded and the contents inventoried.
- The driver or owner consents to the search.
If you were pulled over for a minor traffic ticket and your car was searched and you were arrested, please call our law office. You have a very limited time period to file a motion to suppress to challenge the search of your car. Our law firm is W. Scott Smith, P.C. and our number is 404-581-0999.