When Can An Officer Legally Search Your Car?

Many of our clients tell us, “The cop pulled me over for no reason, dragged me out of the car, and searched it without asking my permission or giving me any reason. Can he do that?”

The answer is — it depends. The lack of permission may be able to be developed later in court, in a hearing, or at trial.

The 1st question to ask is — did the officer have a valid reason for pulling you over? Or, if you were sitting inside your parked car did he have a valid reason to approach your car and initiate contact with you? Some police officers, when they want to pull someone over or deal with someone, will invent a traffic offense. Typical examples are no turn signal used or no seat-belt. These are hard to overcome as objective proof is difficult and most judges will believe law enforcement over the accused.

However, make a note of what reason the officer gives you at the time of the initial stop because this reason may morph into something else by the time you get to your Probable Cause Hearing.

This difference may be significant for us. This reasonable suspicion to stop (or approach an occupant of a parked car) is the 1st thing we look at when developing our defenses.

From there we proceed from the reason for the stop to the reason for the search. Once you are stopped — whether legit or not (which will have to be hashed out in court) — the police must provide a legal reason or defensible theory – “probable cause” – to proceed with a search.

Common reasons police officers use as probable cause:

  • Sudden, furtive movements on the part of the driver and/or passengers as police approach the car – as if to hide or dispose of something. This is subjective. We can fight this
  • Driver and/or passengers acting nervous or suspicious — subjective: difficult to quantify and many people are nervous when stopped. We can fight this
  • The car is suspected as having been used in a crime — not enough for probable cause. We can fight this
  • The driver admits to having something illegal in the car — this is probable cause to search
  • Failure of the driver or any of the passengers to produce a valid Texas drivers license or ID. We can fight this
  • Not having insurance on the car or up to date registration. We can fight this
  • Being in a known high drug trafficking area. We can fight this
  • Some type of illegal drugs, open container, or weapon in plain view of the cop standing outside the car. This is probable cause to search
  • The smell of marijuana in the car or of alcohol on the driver. This is probable cause to search for drugs or other evidence of drinking and driving
  • Driver is being arrested on a warrant. No probable cause needed to search in this situation. The car must be inventoried per Houston Police Department policy before being towed. In this case the police must search all the main areas of the car, including trunk and glove box – as long as they don’t damage the car. If the warrant is for drugs this also allows them to do a more detailed search in places where drugs might be hidden

The above are only some of the more common reasons given to search our clients’ cars. The facts of every case are different and how we use these facts will vary. Searches of cars are not protected by the same expectations of and rights to privacy as searches of homes in which Search Warrants must usually be produced. This still does not allow a rookie cop, a vindictive cop, a cop with an attitude, a cop with a quota, or a cop with a hunch to go on a fishing expedition in your car hoping to come up with something to arrest you on.

Call Houston defense attorney Carl Haggard at The Haggard Law Firm at 832-328-0600 for a confidental free consultation to discuss the reasons given for your stop and search and whether we may have grounds for a Motion to Suppress. If we get the search thrown out, the fruit of the search is thrown out as well, and we win the case.

Houston Police Vehicle Search

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