The Basics: When Can an Officer Search your Vehicle and House?

Many of us have been pulled over by a police officer due to a minor traffic violation, such as speeding or a busted taillight. Does such a stop then give the officer to search your car? Could you face serious criminal charges if the officer finds something potentially incriminating? The law in this area can get quite complicated, but here are a few basic things to keep in mind.

The Fourth Amendment and “Unreasonable” Search and Seizure

If you remember your high school civics class—or just recently watched a cop show on television—you know that the Fourth Amendment usually requires the police to get a warrant before conducting a search of a person or their property. Actually, what the Fourth Amendment says is that all people have the right to be “secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures” unless a warrant is issued.

The word “unreasonable” is crucial. There are, in fact, circumstances where a police officer may legally conduct a “reasonable” search without a warrant. A common example is a search incidental to an arrest. An officer may search a person under arrest for weapons and evidence related to the criminal charge without getting a warrant.

An officer may also conduct a warrantless search if he has “probable cause” to suspect a crime has been committed. In the case of a traffic stop, for example, even if you were only pulled over for speeding, if the officer sees illegal drugs in the back seat of your car, he is allowed to conduct a search of the entire vehicle without stopping to get a warrant. However, if there are no drugs in “plain sight,” the officer cannot conduct a search based on a mere hunch that there might be illegal drugs.

Can Police Enter My Home Without Consent?

Any search without a warrant is permissible under the Fourth Amendment when the subject consents. This can present issues in the context of a home search where the residence has multiple occupants. For instance, what if you do not consent to a police search but your spouse does?

The U.S. Supreme Court has said that in the case of “jointly occupied premises,” the police may conduct a warrantless search if only one occupant consents. However, if the other occupant is present and objects to the search, then police must obtain a warrant. But the Supreme Court carved out a further exception in a 2014 decision, where it said the objector had to be physically present at the time of the search. In other words, if your spouse consents to a search of your home, and you are not there to object, you cannot later claim the search violated the Fourth Amendment.

Stand Up For Your Rights in Galveston or League City

The important thing to remember when dealing with police is to always be respectful but also cognizable of your rights. You do not have to consent to a warrantless search of your property. And if you are arrested and charged with a crime, you have the right to speak with an experienced Houston criminal lawyer who will hold the police accountable for their actions. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today if you require immediate legal assistance.

The Law Office of Tad Nelson & Associates

Houston • Clear Lake • Galveston • League City