Motor Vehicle Searches

AuthorDeja Vishny
Motor Vehicle Searches
A. Your Rights
§6:01 Right to Privacy in a Vehicle
In Katz v. New York, 389 U.S. 347 (1967), the Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment protects people,
not places; accordingly, the Constitution confers an individual’s right to privacy inside his car, as well as his home.
More recently, in United States v. Jones    
be free from a warrantless government trespass in his vehicle. Nonetheless, one’s privacy interest in a vehicle is less
than one’s privacy interest in a home. New York v. Class, 475 U.S. 106 (1986). Because cars, unlike homes, are readily
maneuverable, special standards have been developed which pertain to car searches. California v. Carney, 471 U.S.
386 (1985). The courts have developed an entire line of legal doctrine applying to vehicular searches.
§6:02 Right To Challenge Stop/Search – Standing
stop of the car, as well as a search of his or her own person. Brendlin v. California, 551 U.S. 249 (2007). However,
only the driver or owner of the car has standing to challenge the search of the car itself. Rakas v. Illinois, 439 U.S. 128
(1978). When a car is stopped and later searched, the passenger (who may be charged with whatever is located in the
car), lacks the ability to contest the search unless he can challenge the vehicle stop and seizure.
B. Overview of Law Governing Vehicle Stops
§6:03 General Rule: Reasonable Suspicion
Stopping a car because the police have reasonable suspicion to believe the driver and/or passengers committed
a crime is only one of myriad reasons that a valid stop can take place. Police may also stop cars for any non-criminal
    
seatbelt to littering, vehicle defects, and moving violations.
search for guns and drugs. The Supreme Court has held these pretextual stops for minor violations to be lawful. Whren
v. United States   
driver a ticket related to the original reason for the stop unless they really want to pile it on. Rather, this type of stop is
substances. It is no secret that these types of stops impact heavily on minorities, who are usually the targets of these
stops in urban areas and on the highways.
 
general crime control, however, are not permitted (City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32 (2000)), nor are random
stops of drivers. Police can, though, set up roadblocks to detect drunk or unlicensed drivers, as long as they stop every
person they encounter.
   
required to stop a person walking down the street. However, there are more relaxed standards regarding the information
an anonymous tipster must provide the police.
§6:04  6-2
§6:04 Anonymous Tipsters
reckless driving. Navarette v. California, 134 S. Ct. 1683 (2013). In Navarette, a woman called the police and told
number. Although the police did not independently observe any reckless driving or signs the driver was intoxicated,
the Court upheld the stop and subsequent search. The Court cited two factors that enhanced the caller’s reliability:
(1) the call was made almost immediately after the event, thus it was similar to a present-sense impression, which is
deemed reliable hearsay; and (2) the call came through 911, which records all calls and can trace the caller’s location
    
is similar to many other court rulings. See, e.g., United States v. Wheat, 278 F.3d 722 (8th Cir. 2001); State v. Golotta,
837 A.2d 359 (N.J. 2003); State v. Rutzinski, 623 N.W.2d 516 (Wis. 2001).
witnessing dangerous driving, be sure to check your jurisdiction’s case law because some states have reached the
It is unclear, though, what those states will do in light of Navarette. For example:
McChesney v. State, 988 P.2d 1071 (Wyo. 1999) (suppression granted where police received an anonymous
  
the car but observed no erratic driving during the period they followed the driver).
State v. Miller
observations were limited to the statement that the driver could “barely hold his head up”; informant gave
correct information about car’s location and license number, but incorrect information about car’s color; the
State v. Lee, 938 P.2d 637 (Mont. 1997) (a bare statement that the anonymous caller “believed” a driver was
car, driver and direction in which it was heading). The holding in Lee is in keeping with the Court’s discussion
in Navarette. See 134 S. Ct. at 1691.
Even if your state has a ruling upholding the stop you may have facts that are similar to those cases in other states
C. Overview of Law Governing Search/Seizure of Vehicle and Occupants
§6:05 What Constitutes a “Seizure”?
Even when the stop of a car is valid, there can be much for you to litigate. Stopping an automobile and detaining
 
Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648 (1979). A “seizure” is deemed to have occurred when a reasonable person would
have believed that he was not free to leave. U.S. v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544 (1980). A person has a reasonable belief
that he has been seized when police take actions such as activating sirens, commanding the person to stop, displaying
weapons, blocking travel, or otherwise restricting the person’s movement. Other manifestations of a seizure include
cer’s request might be compelled. Michigan v. Chesternut, 486 U.S. 567 (1988).
§6:06 When is a Search Allowed?
Simply because a car is validly stopped and an occupant seized does not mean that police have the lawful authority
to pat down or search the occupants of the car. The standards for reasonable suspicion set forth in Terry v. Ohio, 392
U.S. 1 (1968), still apply. See §6:24; see also Chapter 5, §5:30, et seq
    
   Michigan v. Long, 463
    
does not automatically confer police with the right to search the car itself. Unlike with homes or businesses, however,
6-3  §6:11
the police do not have to obtain a warrant, as long as there is probable cause to search the car. Chambers v. Maroney,
399 U.S. 42 (1970).
When a car can be searched incident to a driver’s arrest is also a fruitful area of litigation. Police cannot search
a car when they only ticket the driver. However, in Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332 (2009), the U.S. Supreme Court
breathed new life into vehicular search litigation, changing decades of law embodied in the New York v. Belton, 453
U.S. 454 (1981), doctrine. See §6:34 for a discussion of Belton.
You must look at each step of the police conduct that led to the stop, seizure, arrest and search of your client and
Practice point: Always investigate.
Always have your investigator interview every person who was in the car with your client at the time
of the stop. If the others in the car were also charged in connection with the stop and search, you will need
the consent of their lawyers to interview them; if they were not charged and are just witnesses, arrange to
talk with them as soon as possible after you get the case. Often they will contradict what the police say, and
this can be helpful, even if just in minor details. Most judges will automatically rule in favor of the police if
 
citizens contradict the police, it makes the police testimony more suspect and gives you a better chance of
the judge ruling in your favor.
[§§6:07-6:09 Reserved]
A. Governing Law
§6:10 Federal Law: All Persons in Vehicle Subject to Questioning and Detention
something minor which violates a local ordinance, such as a burned-out light or heavily-tinted windows. The United
States Supreme Court has held that when a car is stopped, all persons in the car may be questioned, ordered out of
the car, and temporarily detained. Arizona v. Johnson, 555 U.S. 323(2009); Maryland v. Wilson, 519 U.S. 408 (1997);
Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106 (1977).
§6:11 State Law and Other Limits on Police Action
However, you should check your own jurisdiction’s court decisions to see if drivers or passengers may be able to
challenge police actions ordering them out of the car or detaining them based on state constitutional grounds. For example,
in State v. Mendez, 970 P.2d 722, 724 (Wash. 1999) (overruled on other grounds), the Washington Supreme Court held
to order the passengers out of the car or to remain in the car.” See also, e.g., Commonwealth v. Gonsalves, 711 N.E.2d 108
is at risk or that a crime has been committed before ordering a driver out of a car. State v. Sprague, 824 A.2d 539 (2003).
Moreover, just because the police can order a driver or passenger out of a car does not mean they have a green light
to frisk or take further intrusive actions. Reasonable suspicion is still required for the police to order passengers into a
squad car or conduct a frisk. Arizona v. Johnson, supra; State v. Varnado, 582 N.W.2d 886 (Minn. 1998).
B. Sample Fact Pattern: Minor Non-Moving Violation
Police stop a car in winter at 8:45 p.m., on a residential side street, because the license plate was not properly illu-
the driver’s side of the car; and the driver handed him her license. There is one passenger in the car. The report states
    
felt a bulge in the passenger’s pocket and removed a plastic baggie containing three corner cuts of a white chunky
substance, which was later determined to be crack cocaine.

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