When is it legal for a police officer to conduct automobile searches? How can you challenge an automobile search? Find out here.
The Search Incident to an Arrest
When a police officer has made a lawful arrest of the occupants of an automobile they may, for their own safety, search the passenger compartment of the vehicle for weapons. Also, this is called a search incident to arrest. The officer may also examine the contents of any container found within the passenger compartment. Also, such “container” (i.e. an object capable of holding another object) may face a search whether open or closed under New York vs. Belton, 453 US 454 (1981); State vs. Delossantos, 211 Conn. 258 (1989). Furthermore, when the hatchback area of the car can be reached from the interior or passenger area, it can also be searched incident to arrest. Delossantos, 211 Conn. at 257. This is important because anything an officer finds in plain view while looking for a weapon is admissible in court. This includes drugs.
The “Terry” Stop When in a Car
Police officers may also conduct an investigatory frisk of the passengers in an automobile. They can do this if they believe that a passenger in the automobile may possess a weapon. When a reasonable and articulable suspicion exists, the detaining officer may conduct an investigative stop of the suspect. They can do this to confirm or to dispel suspicions. This is called a “Terry stop.” During a Terry stop, an officer may search the automobile’s passenger compartment for weapons. The search get limited to areas where weapons might get hidden, if they reasonably believe the suspect is potentially dangerous, according to Michigan vs. Long, 463 US 1032 (1983).
In Connecticut, our Appellate Court has defined what reasonable and articulable suspicion means: “[w]hat constitutes a reasonable and articulable suspicion depends on the totality of the circumstances…The determination of whether a specific set of circumstances provides a police officer with a reasonable and articulable suspicion of criminal activity is a question of fact for the trial court and is subject to limited appellate review,” (State vs. Anderson, 24 Conn. App. 438, cert. denied, 219 Conn. 903 (1991)).
The “Automobile Exception” to the Warrant Requirement
Police officers may conduct a search of the entire automobile. This includes the truck and containers in the car, if they have probable cause to believe that contraband exists in the car. This is commonly known as the “automobile exception” to the warrant requirement. State vs. Wilson, 111 Conn. App. 614 (2008) explains the justification for this exception. (1) the inherent mobility of an automobile creates exigent circumstances (i.e. a person can drive away quickly and evidence may get destroyed); and (2) the expectation of privacy with respect to one’s automobile is significantly less than that relating to one’s home or office.
Probable cause to search exists if: (1) there is probable cause to believe that the particular items sought to be seized are connected with criminal activity or will assist in a particular apprehension or conviction and (2) there is probable cause to believe that the items sought to be seized will be found in the place to be searched.” Wilson at 624. If an officer has probable cause, they can also search the trunk of the automobile, according to State vs. Kuskowski, 200 Conn. 82 (1986).
Officers can search the automobile pursuant to an “inventory search” as well. In State vs. Whealton, 108 Conn. App. 172 (2008) the Connecticut Appellate Court explained that the inventory search of a car “[is] a well defined exception to the warrant requirement…In the performance of their community caretaking functions, the police must frequently take automobiles into their custody…A standardized procedure for making a list or inventory as soon as reasonable after reaching the station house not only deters false claims but also inhibits theft or careless handling of articles taken from the arrested person.”
As a general rule, police can search anything that you consent to being searched. So, if you did not consent, or if you were forced to consent to the search, then there will be grounds to challenge the search.
Searching Someone Else’s Car
Just like searches in someone else’s house, a defendant’s ability to challenge the search of someone else’s car will depend on whether they possess the requisite expectation of privacy necessary to establish standing. Because passengers in an automobile rarely maintain an expectation of privacy in that car, it is usually difficult to establish that a passenger possesses the expectation of privacy necessary to challenge the search. This rule was explicitly stated in State vs. Kimble, 106 Conn. App. 572 (2008), where the Connecticut Court of Appeals stated that “[p]assengers in an automobile, neither claiming nor demonstrating a possessory interest in the automobile, generally are regarded as lacking a reasonable expectation of privacy in the automobile.”