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Probable Cause to Search a Vehicle in Louisiana

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Did you know that more than 20 million drivers are pulled over each year? This breaks down to about 54,000 per day across the country.

If you’ve ever been pulled over, the police may have asked you if they can search your vehicle. Do you know what your rights are? Do you know if you can refuse a search? 

Are you clear on what constitutes probable cause to search a vehicle? If you’ve ever wondered the answers to these questions, you’re in the right place. Read on to have all of your questions answered. 

What To Do If You Get Pulled Over

First things first: if you get pulled over, do you know what to do? The best course of action if you are pulled over is to quickly and safely stop your car. Find a safe spot to do so (pull into a parking lot, pull fully off the road, etc.). When you find a safe spot to pull over, put on your four-way flashing lights and wait for the officer to approach your vehicle.

Don’t reach into your glove compartment, purse, or other bag or reach for anything. Wait for the officer to come to your window. Any sudden movements or reaching may be interpreted as you reaching for a weapon.

The best course of action is to put your hands on the wheel and wait for them to ask you for your license, registration, and proof of insurance. It’s also wise to be respectful and cooperative with the officer. 

The officer may ask you if they can search your vehicle. Here is where it’s important to understand probable cause, your rights, and what gives law enforcement the ability to search your vehicle. 

What Is Probable Cause? 

Probable cause is the belief that a crime has been committed, that you have illegal items in your vehicle, or are about to commit a crime. Probable cause is more than just a “hunch.”

Rather, it is an educated assumption based on the facts and circumstances of the situation. This information would lead a reasonable person to believe that you are committing a crime, have committed a crime, or are about to commit a crime.

So what kinds of facts and circumstances could lead to probable cause? Things in plain view, the scent of drugs, behavior of the driver or passenger, etc. Let’s explore these situations in a little more depth below. 

What Constitutes Probable Cause to Search a Vehicle in Louisiana? 

The 4th Amendment gives us the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. What this means in terms of getting pulled over is that unless you consent to the search, police cannot just arbitrarily search your vehicle. They have to have probable cause. 

If you consent to the search, however, that’s another story. Typically, officers will ask you if they can search your car. You do not have to consent to the search, but if you do, anything they find in the car is fair game to be admitted as evidence. 

If you decline the search, and the officer does not have probable cause, they will have to let you go or obtain a search warrant (which they would not be able to get without probable cause). 

A warrantless search is allowed in the following situations: 

1. The officer has probable cause that you have committed a crime and there is evidence in your vehicle. 

2. Illegal materials are in plain view (e.g., drugs or drug paraphernalia, a firearm, stolen merchandise)

3. Officer can smell marijuana in your vehicle

4. The officer feels that they are in danger due to a hidden weapon in your vehicle (this would be considered “exigent circumstances”)

5. A search incident to a lawful arrest–if you are placed under arrest, an officer can search you and the area in the vehicle under your control for illegal items, weapons, etc. 

If your car is impounded, the police can also search your car. They cannot, however, impound your car solely to search it. 

What To Do If You Believe Your Rights Have Been Violated 

If you get pulled over and an officer asks you to search your car, you have the right to refuse. Refusing cannot be considered an admission of guilt and you cannot be penalized for refusing. This is part of your rights given in the 4th Amendment. 

If you refuse, an officer would have to seek a search warrant if they have probable cause. If they do not, and there is no probable cause to arrest you, they have to let you go without a search. 

Many searches happen not because officers have probable cause, but because drivers don’t realize that they can refuse the search.

If you are pulled over and refuse a search, but the officer searches your vehicle anyway and finds illegal items, your attorney can file a motion to have evidence suppressed because it was obtained during an unreasonable search. 

If you have questions about the legality of a search of your automobile, it is wise to speak to an attorney. They can advise you of your rights and also help you navigate the criminal justice system. 

Do You Need a Louisiana Criminal Defense Attorney? 

Now that you have a better understanding of what constitutes probable cause to search a vehicle in Louisiana, you can ensure that your rights are not violated during a traffic stop. 

However, if you have been charged with a crime and suspect that you have been subject to an illegal search, contact the Barkemeyer Law Firm. He is an experienced criminal defense attorney who handles cases ranging from DWIs to assault charges and comes highly recommended by previous clients. 

Carl Barkemeyer wrote the published book titled How to Defend Drug Charges in Louisiana. He regularly gives lectures and advice to other attorneys regarding how to successfully defend clients for drug possession and distribution.

Louisiana DWI & Criminal Lawyers

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Louisiana criminal lawyers and DWI attorneys at the Barkemeyer Law Firm providing legal defense services for clients in Baton Rouge, Ascension, Livingston, Tangipahoa, Port Allen, Alexandria, New Orleans, Lafayette, Metairie, Kenner, Gretna, Hahnville, Chalmette, Slidell, St. Tammany, St. Charles, St. John, St. Bernard, Mandeville, Covington, Shreveport, Bossier, Jefferson, and all of Louisiana.

DISCLAIMER: The information on this website is not formal legal advice nor does it create an attorney-client relationship.

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