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Reasonable Suspicion and The Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment protects you from unreasonable search and seizures by law enforcement. In California, vehicle searches are very common, but many people fail to realize what constitutes an illegal search by law enforcement. Therefore, it is important to understand the Fourth Amendment and what rights citizens in California have. In this article, we are going to look specifically at searches related to vehicles.

In most cases, police or law enforcement need a search warrant to perform a search. However, there are specific instances where that is not necessary. One example is a vehicle search. Instead, officers can use probable cause or reasonable suspicion in order to search your vehicle.

Understanding the Basics of a Legal Search

The Fourth Amendment’s rule against unreasonable searches and seizures mean the police cannot search you or your vehicle unless one of the following is true.

  • They’ve obtained a search warrant from a judge
  • Search falls within one of a number of exceptions to the warrant requirement

In most routine vehicle searches, the police do not obtain a warrant but rather rely on one of the exceptions to that requirement. Many of these exceptions have been found to serve as probable cause to suspect a crime is being committed.

Traffic Stops and Subsequent Searches

The Fourth Amendment protects your privacy generally, so an officer can’t simply pull a driver over for no reason. Instead, the officer must be able to articulate specific facts that led him to suspect that a crime was taking place. These facts are frequently referred to as probable cause or reasonable suspicion. There is vast case law laying out many different situations that would constitute probable cause to legally justify a traffic stop and potentially a search of your vehicle without a warrant.

Police may justify a stop of your vehicle based on legal violations they can see in plain view. For example, like expired registration tags or infractions committed while driving. Once your vehicle stopped, they may justify a search if they observe evidence of contraband in your vehicle like guns or drugs. They can also search your vehicle if one of the occupants is on parole or probation under certain circumstances. Police also frequently conduct searches incident to arrest or search your entire vehicle once it’s been impounded.

Contact the Fourth Amendment Lawyers at The Nieves Law Firm

As you can see, the law of search and seizure is complex and requires a talented and experienced attorney. If you feel your privacy rights were violated during a police search of your vehicle in the Bay Area or Sacramento, call us for a consultation and we can assess whether you have a motion to suppress the evidence against you. A successful motion to suppress could lead to a dismissal in some cases, freeing you from conviction or punishment.

Author Bio

Jo-Anna Nieves is the Founder and Managing Attorney of The Nieves Law Firm, an Oakland criminal defense law firm she created in 2012. With more than 11 years of experience in criminal defense, she has zealously represented clients in a wide range of legal matters, including DUIs, domestic violence, expungement, federal crimes, juvenile law, motions to vacate, sex crimes, violent crimes, and other criminal charges.

Jo-Anna received her Juris Doctor from the Florida State University College of Law and is a member of the State Bar of California. She has received numerous accolades for her work, including being named a Super Lawyer Rising Star the past 8 years, the #12 Fastest Growing Law Firm in the U.S. by Law Firm 500 in 2019, and one of the fastest growing companies in the U.S. by Inc 5000 in 2023.

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