Law enforcement officers do not have an unfettered right to search a vehicle. Officers may not conduct a search unless they have probable cause.
Here are some important things that individuals who are facing charges resulting from a search of their vehicle should understand about probable cause.
What constitutes probable cause?
To proceed with a search, police must reasonably believe that they may find weapons, drugs, or evidence of a crime. A police officer’s hunch that a person looks like a criminal or may have drugs in the car does not amount to probable cause.
A proper determination of probable cause must be reasonable and readily articulable. If an officer sees contraband in plain view on the floor or seat of a vehicle, that observation would constitute probable cause to support a search.
Does consenting to a search eliminate the requirement of probable cause?
When officers request to search a vehicle, a driver might interpret the request as an indication that they have legal grounds to do so. However, New Jersey’s Supreme Court has previously found that giving an officer permission to conduct a search does not do away with the need for probable cause. Officers must make a determination of probable cause prior to asking for consent to a search.
In the absence of probable cause, searching a vehicle may be a violation of the fourth amendment. Evidence that officers obtain from an unconstitutional search is inadmissible in a criminal trial, and a defense attorney may move to suppress the evidence or dismiss the charges.