It’s a familiar story on Indiana roads: A police officer has a driver pull over, and during the interaction that follows, the police discover illegal drugs in the driver’s car. Sometimes the police say they pulled over the driver because of reckless driving, and sometimes it’s something as simple as a faulty tail light. Whatever the cause, the end result is that the driver faces serious drug charges.
The story itself may be commonplace, but the legal issues involved are highly complex. They can involve everything from driving regulations to local ordinances to state laws and the U.S. Constitution.
One of the biggest questions in these cases is whether the police had the right to search the car.
Search and seizure
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects us from unreasonable search and seizure. Courts have argued for many years over the limits of “reasonable” searches, but they agree that this constitutional right gives us strong protection when we are in our homes. If the police want to search our homes, generally they first need to show a judge that they have probable cause to believe they will find evidence of a crime in the home. If the judge issues a warrant, the police can then search the residence.
For several reasons, the police have more leeway when they want to search a car. For one thing, we don’t have the same expectation of privacy in a car as we do in our homes. For another, we operate our vehicles on public roads, and the state has an interest in keeping public roads safe. As part of this safety interest, the police can pull over a driver if the driver appears to be driving unsafely.
Once the police have pulled over a driver, they can search the driver’s car without a warrant if they have probable cause to believe they will find evidence of a crime. For instance, if a police officer pulls over a car that ran a stop sign, and while speaking with the driver, the officer smells marijuana, the police officer may have probable cause to believe a search will reveal evidence of a drug crime.
That said, the police can overstep their authority in this type of search. If they don’t smell marijuana but just think the driver looks like the kind of person who might smoke marijuana, this may not be sufficient to support probable cause. If the police overstep their authority in searching your car, they have violated your constitutional rights.
All this talk of constitutional law may seem vague and theoretical, but it becomes very practical when applied to real-world situations — and it becomes very personal when you are the one facing drug charges. It’s important to learn how the law protects you and how you can defend your rights.