Can the Police Search the Trunk of Your Car Without a Warrant?

Vehicle searches are some of the most hotly contested issues in constitutional criminal law. Traffic stops frequently evolve into full scale federal drug cases or charges for possession with intent to distribute narcotics (cocaine, heroin, MDMA, Molly, or marijuana).

The issue is a common one and popularized by Jay Z in the song "99 problems" a driver is pulled over for routine traffic infractions. The driver feels that he has been racially profiled. After being provided a valid license and registration the officer looks into the car using a flashlight. Finding nothing the officer asks the officer demands permission to search the trunk. Jay Z says the officer can't do that without a warrant. What does the law say?

Recent cases from the United States Supreme Court reveal a complicated answer: maybe. If the driver is not impaired and has merely committed a routine traffic infraction, the officer may not detain the driver for a K9 search or search the glove compartment or trunk. If the officer arrests the driver on outstanding warrants, the officer may not search locked compartments incident to the arrest. However, if the officer has reasonable articulable suspicion that a crime is occurring the rules are very different. For example, if the officer smells marijuana or another drug, he can search any area where drugs could be located including the locked glove compartment or trunk.

There are many fascinating legal issues arising out of traffic stops and arrests. If you find yourself arrested following a traffic infraction, you will be well served to employ a Richmond criminal defense attorney with extensive experience in suppression issues and constitutional law. Please consider contacting my office if you find yourself involved in a case that involves these issues.

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