Fourth Amendment Protects From Some Car Searches

The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States provides Coloradans with protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, and what is reasonable has been defined over the years by the Supreme Court. Drivers recently caught a break when the Court decided that police cannot secretly hide a GPS device on a suspect's car without a warrant, because using such a device was a search.

While new technology like the GPS has challenged the Court in recent years, motorists should make themselves familiar with some Fourth Amendment nuances that apply to motorists facing charges of drug crimes who are pulled over every day on Colorado roads.

Colorado drivers pulled over by a law enforcement officer should know that the officer cannot simply search the car under all circumstances. If the officer has a search warrant, a search is permissible, but often there is no warrant, and other factors come into play.

First, an officer can search a driver's entire car if the officer asks for permission and the driver consents. A casual question like, "Mind if I just take a look in your car?" could lead to a time-consuming, extensive search of every part of the vehicle if the driver agrees. The officer can rifle through the trunk, glove box, under the hood, under the seats and so forth.

When the driver is arrested, police can look inside closed containers in the passenger compartment. This search is permissible because police are allowed to protect themselves from a possible concealed weapon that is readily accessible to the driver, inside the cabin of the vehicle.

A search inside closed containers is not as easily justified if the driver is merely suspected of a crime and has not been arrested. The officer must have probable cause that the driver has committed a crime and must reasonably believe that evidence of that crime is inside the closed container. A person who's been pulled over on suspicion of impaired driving may be vulnerable to a search under this provision of Fourth Amendment law. An officer could claim to believe that a closed container held drugs, for example.

If the driver's vehicle is impounded, officers can search it at their leisure at the police station while taking inventory of its contents.

Police can make mistakes in procedure and conduct searches without probable cause or reasonable suspicion. Anyone accused of a drug offense after drug evidence was found in a car should consult with an attorney about a possible Fourth Amendment rights violation, which would make the evidence inadmissible in court.