If you have been arrested for a DUI in California, you may be wondering if the police can search your vehicle. The answer is not always straightforward. In general, the police can only search your vehicle if they have probable cause to believe that the search will yield evidence of a crime. This means that they must have a reasonable belief that you have committed a crime, and that the evidence of that crime is in your vehicle.
Here are some examples:
Scenario One: You have been stopped for a traffic violation. The officer smells alcohol on your breath and believes you are over the per se limit of 0.08% BAC. You are placed under arrest for DUI. Can the officer then search your vehicle?
Scenario Two: You have been stopped for a traffic violation. As the officer is speaking with you through your vehicle window, she observes a glass pipe on your vehicle’s console. She also determines that your behavior indicates that you on drugs. You are placed under arrest for driving under the influence of drugs. Can the officer search your vehicle?
The Fourth Amendment presumes all warrantless searches and seizures are unlawful. However, there are exceptions. One exception is what is known as the “automobile exception,” which provides that an officer can conduct a warrantless search of a vehicle if an officer has probable cause to believe the vehicle contains evidence of criminal activity. The officer cannot form this belief on mere suspicion or hunch; it must be based on known facts and circumstances that would justify the search.
Assuming no other facts and circumstances other than what is expressed in the scenarios above, in Scenario One, the officer cannot lawfully search your vehicle. In Scenario Two, the officer’s observation of the glass pipe provides cause for a lawful search. That is, the known fact that glass pipes are often used to deliver drugs and you, the driver, appear to be high is enough to provide probable cause to believe your vehicle contains evidence of a crime, i.e., illegal drugs.
As an important aside: Another exception to the Fourth Amendment is giving consent to search. You should not give an officer, whether an Orange County police officer or a California Highway Patrol officer, consent to search your vehicle. It is within your rights to deny the officer’s request to search and even if you are certain there is no evidence of a crime in your vehicle, you should not give this consent. (If the officer believes there is evidence of a crime, the officer can search your vehicle on that basis, but the search can be contested as unlawful if the officer cannot establish the probable cause to search.)
Let’s look at Scenario One again. But this time the officer sees an open container of alcohol in your vehicle. This may provide the officer with probable cause because not only are you driving under the influence, but there is probable cause to believe you are committing the crime of driving with an open container of alcohol in your vehicle. Then, as she searches your vehicle, she also finds a gun on the floorboard. If she can establish that she had probable cause to search your vehicle due to her observation of the open container, the gun would also be admissible as evidence of a crime, even though that was not what initiated her search.
If you have been arrested for DUI and your vehicle was subsequently searched and evidence of another crime was discovered, you may have grounds for challenging that search in court. If the challenge is successful, the evidence found in your vehicle will be suppressed, making it all but impossible for the prosecution to charge you with that crime.
If you believe that your vehicle was searched illegally, you should speak to an attorney without delay. Orange County DUI defense attorney, William Weinberg offers a free consultation where he can help you understand your rights and options. You may contact him at his Irvine office by calling 949-474-8008 or by emailing him at email@example.com.