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When can Georgia police search my vehicle?

Can the police search your vehicle if you are pulled over for speeding?

Police recently stopped a Georgia woman based on allegations of speeding. The stop led to an arrest. The criminal charges had nothing to do with the way she operated her vehicle. The police arrested the woman based on evidence gathered during a search of her vehicle.

Wait, can the police search my vehicle if they stop me for speeding? Generally, the police cannot simply search a vehicle. The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution provides the protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. The police generally need a warrant to conduct a search. This is true even for vehicles.

However, there are exceptions. When it comes to vehicles, four basic exceptions to the warrant requirement may exist:

  • Arrest: the driver is arrested
  • Plain view: illegal contraband, stolen property or anything else that signals criminal activity is clearly visible
  • Exigent circumstances: an ordinary person would believe that the search was necessary to prevent harm to the officers or other people, the destruction of evidence of criminal activity, escape of a suspect or other activity that would frustrate law enforcement efforts
  • Consent: the driver consents to the search

Consent generally translates to permission for the police to search the entire vehicle – not just the area immediately surrounding the driver.

The search is legal if the officer has a warrant or can justify it with one of these exceptions. If not, the use of evidence found during the search to support criminal charges could be challenged.

In the case noted above, the officer stopped the woman and allegedly noticed a strong marijuana odor coming from the vehicle. When he asked the woman about the odor, she produced a cup that contained marijuana residue. These facts may support an exception to the warrant requirement.

Even so, legal counsel for anyone facing charges in this situation would likely review the evidence. A strong defense strategy often includes a review for a flaw in these facts. If found, the flaw could nullify the exception. If the exception does not survive a challenge the search was illegal. Evidence from an illegal search is generally thrown out. This could lead to the reduction or dismissal of the criminal charge for drug possession the woman currently faces.

What do I do if stopped by police? First, find a safe place to stop and pull over. Keep your hands on the steering wheel and be friendly. Do not admit fault, but answer questions honestly. Keep in mind that the officer is just doing his or her job. Try to cooperate without putting your own rights at jeopardy. Do not argue a speeding ticket or other traffic violation at this time. Gather the information and seek legal counsel to help build a defense after the stop is complete.

It is especially important to seek legal counsel if the stop results in a search that leads to criminal charges. An attorney experienced in these matters can review the details of the stop and search. Your lawyer will use this information to craft a defense strategy to better ensure your legal rights are protected.