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Four Factors That Justify Vehicle Searches in Florida


You have constitutional rights to be free from unlawful search and seizure regarding your person and residence, but these issues also come up frequently when police stop your vehicle. While there’s no bright line test to determine how far officers can go when conducting a search, there are four factors they’ll use to justify their actions. A Fort Lauderdale criminal lawyer can explain how the law works in more detail.

Applicable Constitutional Standard for Vehicle Searches

Both the US and Florida Constitutions precede the invention of the automobile. As such, the application of constitutional laws to vehicle searches comes through court decisions over the last few decades. The prevailing case precedent holds that you do have some protections against searches of your vehicle, but a lower level as compared to your person or home.

Four Justifications for Vehicle Searches

Courts have recognized four scenarios where police are authorized to conduct a search of your vehicle:

  1. When an officer spots weapons, which are in plain sight, within reach, or otherwise available to you;
  2. If police have probable cause that evidence of criminal activity is within the vehicle;
  3. Where a search is necessary to preserve evidence that’s related to a criminal case; or,
  4. When safety to the public requires an officer to conduct a search.

Note that the scope and extent of the search depends on the circumstances. For instance, when police rely on #1 above to conduct a search, the justification relates to what the officer can see within the passenger compartment. He or she cannot search the trunk of your car for a firearm. With respect to #2 and #3, the search can extend only to those areas of the vehicle where officers allege the evidence may be. If they assert that you have drugs in the back seat, police cannot continue their investigation into the glove box.

Practical Considerations in Vehicle Searches

Civil rights is a highly technical area of criminal law, which is why you may find it more helpful to understand the practical, real-life side of vehicle searches. A few key points include:

  • Plain View: In any stop, police are allowed to conduct a thorough visual scan of what’s in plain sight within your vehicle. If an officer sees anything suspicious, you can be sure that this will lead to a more invasive search.
  • Other Observations: Other perceptions and observations by police could justify a search, such as the odor of marijuana or alcohol. Even your demeanor and statements may give officers grounds to search other parts of the car.
  • Consent: Don’t be fooled by an officer’s tricks to get you to consent to a search of your vehicle. Once you agree to let police view certain areas, they will push further based upon your original consent. After you’ve provided it, you’re not likely to withdraw your consent.

Discuss Vehicle Search Issues with a Florida Criminal Defense Lawyer

If you have questions about the legality of a vehicle search that led to your arrest, please contact attorney Kevin J. Kulik to set up a consultation at our Fort Lauderdale office. We can tell you more about your rights after hearing what happened during the stop.


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