The Fourth Amendment to the US and NYS Constitution prohibits the government from unreasonable searches and seizures. Generally, police cannot search your car without obtaining a warrant, your consent, or absent other exceptional situations that create the automobile exception to the warrant requirement.
Now before searching your car, police will obviously need to pull you over. In order to conduct a legal traffic stop, police must have either probable cause or reasonable suspicion.
Once probable cause is established, police have the legal right to pull you over. For instance, where police believe you violated the Vehicle and Traffic Law, police may pull you over.
On a more general level, you may wonder what is probable cause?
Probable cause is defined under New York Law as “reasonable cause to believe a person has committed an offense exists when evidence or information which appears reliable discloses facts or circumstances which are collectively of such weight and persuasiveness as to convince a person of ordinary intelligence, judgment, and experience that it is reasonably likely that such offense was committed and that such person committed it.” CPL s. 70.10(2). See also People v. Russell (2005), CPL s. 140.10.
In other words, if police see you commit any traffic infraction under the VTL (e.g., failure to use turning signal), then they have established probable cause necessary under the law to pull you over.
Police may also stop your car if they have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity by you or others in the car (i.e., committing a misdemeanor or felony). Reasonable suspicion is defined as “the quantum of knowledge sufficient to induce an ordinarily prudent and cautious man under the circumstances to believe that criminal activity is at hand.” People v. Cantor (1975). Thus, to establish reasonable suspicion, police just need to say that they saw you or a passenger in your car committing a crime.
As you can see, it is relatively easy for police to legally stop you while you’re driving a car in the State of New York.
Now, getting back to the main question, if you were legal pulled over, can police officers search your car?
First and foremost, keep in mind that police can always ask you for your consent allowing them to search your car. In fact, often times that is what they do! Obviously they will not ask you “do you give us consent to search your car?” They will ask you to step out of the car or to open your trunk. If you fail to say that you “refuse” or that you do not consent to the search, you have given them consent. However, if you do not consent, they must end their probe. If they search your car anyway, they are committing an illegal search under the Fourth Amendment. In that case, evidence seized may be suppressed and cannot be used against you in the court of law.
Aside from consent, police can have other legal rights to search your car. At the time of the stop, if police have probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains fruits of the crime or contraband, they can search the car without obtaining a warrant. This search arising from probable cause is known as the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement. So, let’s say you were pulled over for failing to use a turning signal and officers smell the scent of marijuana coming from your car at the time of the stop, they have probable cause to search your car for more marijuana. “What about the trunk?” you may ask. This includes the search of your trunk because it is reasonable to assume that marijuana can fit into and be kept in the trunk.
SEARCH INCIDENT TO AN ARREST
Police can also search the car incident to your arrest. This is another exception to the warrant requirement known as a search incident to an arrest. KEEP IN MIND that the law pertaining to the search incident to an arrest is different from the law in situations where probable cause exists. So let’s say you were pulled over for a simple traffic violation – which gives no probable cause to search for weapons, drugs or other evidence of a crime inside of the vehicle – and your driver’s license turns out to be suspended or revoked, you will be arrested, invoking the limited right to search incident to your arrest. At the time of your arrest, police may search the interior of your vehicle incident to your arrest if you, the arrestee, is still inside the car, unsecured and may gain access to the interior of the vehicle. This includes the search of closed containers (e.g., purses, backpacks, etc.) in your vehicle if police believe that you are armed, posing a danger to them or to the public and/or attempting to destroy evidence. But, once you exit your car, officers cannot search any containers in your car to search for weapons or other evidence of crime because you no longer pose a threat of reaching for weapons or destroying evidence.
The search incident to an arrest is limited to your wingspan, which includes your clothing and anywhere in the car where you are able to reach. Keep in mind that an arrest may be custodial. In other words, you do not have to be handcuffed to be arrested. Once you are detained and have no right to leave, you are under custodial arrest. Unlike many other jurisdictions, New York does not give officers the right to search the trunk or any containers (e.g., purses, backpacks, etc.) incident to an arrest UNLESS they have reasonable suspicion of illegality such that you are armed, posing a threat of danger to them or to the public and/or attempting to destroy evidence.
Let’s say you are arrested for driving while intoxicated (DWI) and indicate no threat of danger to the officers. As they arrest you, officers find a pack of cigarettes in your wingspan (can be in your pocket or in the cup holder) and begin to go through your cigarette pack and find crack. Legally, the evidence of the crack cannot be used against you in the court of law because the search of the “container” in this case is unlawful. A DWI arrest without reasonable suspicion that you are armed, posing a threat of danger to them or to the public and/or attempting to destroy evidence does not give New York police the right to illegally search any closed containers in your wingspan at the time of your arrest.
REMEMBER that in order for police to conduct this type of search legally, the arrest must be lawful, the search must be justifiable such that it is conducted for preservation of evidence and safety of the police officers and public, and the search must be limited in geographic scope such that police officers only search your wingspan. Remember, in NY officers cannot search containers in your wingspan unless they reasonably suspect that you are armed, posing a threat of danger to them or to the public and/or attempting to destroy evidence.
Contact a Criminal attorney in buffalo ny, criminal attorneys in buffalo new york, Criminal Lawyer Buffalo Ny or a Criminal Defense Lawyer in Buffalo New York for more information.