Police Cannot Search Vehicle Solely Because It Came from a State Where Marijuana Use is Legal

Kanorado exitThe Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects people “against unreasonable searches and seizures” by police, usually by requiring them to obtain a warrant from a judge before conducting a search of a person or their property. Courts have identified some exceptions to the warrant requirement, including the “automobile exception.” Police can search a vehicle without a warrant if they have “probable cause” to believe a search will turn up evidence of criminal activity. This exception may be important to a driving while intoxicated (DWI) defense, since most cases begin with a traffic stop. A federal appellate court recently considered whether a driver’s residence in a state with legal marijuana gave police probable cause to search his vehicle. The court ruled in Vasquez v. Lewis that the search violated the driver’s Fourth Amendment rights.

Police must have “reasonable suspicion” of a criminal or motor vehicle offense before they may stop a vehicle on the road. This is a lesser standard than “probable cause.” Once police have stopped a vehicle, several exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s search warrant requirement come into play. The “plain-view rule” states that police can search or investigate anything that they can see from outside the vehicle. An open alcohol container in a cup holder, for example, could lead to a DWI investigation, even if the officer did not suspect DWI when they initiated the traffic stop.

The automobile exception allows a much more thorough search of a vehicle, but an officer must be able to establish that evidence known to them at the time of the search gave them a good-faith belief that they would find contraband or evidence of a crime. Most exceptions to the search warrant requirement involve areas in which people do not have a “reasonable expectation of privacy,” or situations in which the risk of losing evidence makes obtaining a warrant impractical. The U.S. Supreme Court has found that both types of exceptions apply to motor vehicles, beginning with Carroll v. United States in 1925. Cars are not as private as homes, the court found, and their mobility presents an inherent risk of losing evidence.

In the Vasquez case, the police officers stated that they pulled the driver over because they could not see the temporary license tags in his car’s rear window. This took place along Interstate 70 in eastern Kansas. The driver was traveling east from Colorado. The officers reportedly thought he seemed “scared to death,” so they extended the stop to bring in a drug-sniffing dog and to search the vehicle. After finding no evidence of any wrongdoing, they released the driver without charges. The driver sued both officers for violating his Fourth Amendment rights.

The officers argued that they had probable cause to search the vehicle because of factors like the driver’s apparent nervousness, the fact that I-70 was “a known drug corridor,” and their claim that the town where he resided in Colorado was “a drug source area.” The trial court dismissed the case on procedural grounds, but the appellate court reversed, finding that the officers violated the driver’s Fourth Amendment rights. The court noted that half of all U.S. states now allow marijuana use for medical reasons, making the claim that someone is traveling from a “drug source area” highly unpersuasive.

DWI attorney Evan M. Levow has dedicated 100% of his law practice to the defense of people facing DWI charges in the New Jersey court system. To schedule a free and confidential consultation with a skilled and experienced DWI defense advocate, contact us today online or at (877) 593-1717. We are available 24/7 to help you.

More Blog Posts:

Dashcam Videos from New Jersey Police Vehicles Are Public Record, According to Appellate Division Ruling, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, July 20, 2016

“Protective Sweep” Exception Allowed Police to Search New Jersey DWI Suspect’s Car, According to Court, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, May 16, 2016

New Jersey DWI Defendant Challenges Officer’s Justification for Traffic Stop, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, April 24, 2016

Photo credit: Art davis (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.