As an experienced Minnesota Criminal Defense Lawyer, I get a lot of questions about vehicle searches. Here are something you need to know to protect yourself and your rights.
In order to lawfully search a vehicle in the State of Minnesota, law enforcement must first obtain a search warrant. All vehicle searches conducted without a search warrant are presumed to be unconstitutional. If the government wants to search a vehicle without getting a search warrant, the right to search must fall under one of a few exceptions to this warrant requirement.
Listed below are a few brief descriptions of each exception.
Search Incident to Arrest
In the context of motor vehicles, this exception allows the cops to lawfully search an occupant of a vehicle and the passenger-compartment area of the vehicle if:
- At the time of stop the accused could easily access the passenger area of the vehicle and any containers in the vehicle; or
- When here is a reasonable belief that evidence of the crime for which the person was arrested might be found in the vehicle.
This search warrant exception first requires a lawful arrest. If the police did not have a right to place the person under arrest, evidence found during any subsequent search will not be admissible. However, if these factors are met, the police may lawfully search the passenger area of the vehicle, including any containers, bags, purses, luggage and clothing. It makes no difference whether it was the driver who was arrested or a passenger.
Plain View Seizure of Evidence
This exception allows the police to seize evidence of criminal activity that is in plain view. In other words, if, after a lawful traffic stop, an officer approaches the vehicle and sees something illegal (eg., a bag of drugs) the officer can lawfully seize that evidence without getting a search warrant.
See: it is not a search to see something in plain sight. However, the stuff must be immediately apparent ... that what he is seeing is evidence of criminal activity ... before he can seize it without a search warrant. A police officer could not, for example, open a box or container (like a pack of smokes) just to open it and see what's inside.
Probable Cause to Search for Evidence
This exception is somewhat unique to motor vehicles. Generally, a peace office needs probable cause and a search warrant to lawfully search for evidence. However, due to the mobile nature of motor vehicles, courts have held that as long as the police officer has probable cause to believe evidence of a crime is concealed somewhere in the vehicle --- often based on "the odor of marijuana," he may stop and search the vehicle without a search warrant. This includes the right to search all packages, bags, and containers that may reasonably hide or contain the evidence --- even opening them. As long as the police officer has enough information to where he could get a search warrant, the mobile nature of motor vehicles do not require that the officer actually get the search warrant.
This is like a catch-all ... because the police will often want to tow a vehicle. And, see ... when they do, they can conduct an inventory search of it without a search warrant. Most police departments have policies authorizing an inventory search of an impounded vehicle; however, the policy must make clear that the inventory search if part of routine procedure in cases that involved the tow. The police cannot conduct a search for purposes of finding evidence. The search must be conducted pursuant to a department policy to inventory the contents that the police are taking into custody. If the police do happen to find drugs in the vehicle, or any other evidence of criminal activity, that evidence will be admissible and will be used against you.
This is one I think anyone can understand ... the cops can and will ask to search a vehicle. If you say "yes" --- that might be enough. Granted, the police officer must have a reason to suspect criminal activity before he can even ask the owner or driver of the vehicle for permission to search. If the officer legitimately suspects criminal activity and the owner or driver gives the officer permission to search, the officer can search the vehicle without a search warrant. If the owner or driver of the vehicle specifically limits the areas or things that they agree can be search, the officer must limit the scope of the search to only that area.
If you or someone you know was recently been the subject of a vehicle search, make sure you call an experienced Minnesota Criminal Defense Lawyer. The Rolloff Law Office represent individuals throughout the state. Call today to set up a FREE CONSULTATION: (612) 234-1165.