It’s bad enough getting pulled over. But when officers pull you out of the car and rummage through your stuff, it’s shocking and embarrassing.

And whether a car search is legal can be a vital question, especially since it may be your only defense to a drug or weapons charge. For you, that's key, since South Carolina drug crimes can be punished harshly. If a judge finds the search to have been illegal, evidence can be thrown out. This can result in a dismissal or reduction of charges in a plea deal you can live with. But it’s a highly technical defense you’ll need an experienced criminal defense attorney to mount for you.

So let’s look at police car searches when there’s no visible evidence of crime when you get pulled over.

Believe It Or Not, The Law Protects You

The United States Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable police searches. Warrantless searches are presumed unconstitutional. But there are many exceptions to this rule. Searching your car when there’s no apparent criminal evidence as the officer questions you at the stop can be one of those exceptions. But the law requires a good reason to do it.

The Legal Basis to Search Is A Moving Target

The law allows car searches in certain situations for a few basic reasons—mainly, the mobility of a car creates the risk that evidence could disappear by the time officers got a warrant to search it.

To perform a warrantless search in this situation, officers must have “probable cause” the car contains evidence of a crime.

The legal definition of “probable cause” makes it a moving target. The South Carolina Supreme Court describes it as a “fluid concept.” Basically, probable cause exists where the facts and circumstances known to the officer justify a person of reasonable wisdom believing evidence of a crime will be found. In evaluating probable cause, judges look at the whole picture from the standpoint of an independent, unbiased officer.

Due to this vague, challenging definition, traffic stop search law is extremely complex. Your entire case can depend on a moment you never noticed.

These car searches often involve tipsters or informants, which opens up new potential defenses we can’t cover in this article. It can also be based on reasons developed at the stop. We’ve talked before about reasons police give to justify searching your car after stopping you for traffic violations. We’ve also discussed how officers prolong traffic stops to get info to justify a search—and whether that's legal. Shockingly, some of these reasons seem totally innocent, but add up to probably cause when other facts are considered. And sometimes drug dogs are involved, which can also potentially open more defenses.

How Far Can They Go?

Officers can search every area of the car that might contain what they’re looking for. Depending on the case, this can include:

  • The console, glove compartment, and under seats.
  • Any passenger’s belongings, including luggage, bags, or other containers.
  • The trunk and anything in it.

While this seems to open the floodgates to go through the whole car, it might not. If officers have probable cause to search for a bale of weed, they probably can’t look in the console.

What to Do About It

If you got searched for no apparent reason, you certainly can’t count on law enforcement or the prosecutor to back off your charges unless they are given very good reasons. They’re professionals and they handle these cases every day. You need an experienced professional on your side. It’s time to sit down with an experienced criminal defense lawyer to map out your response to this search.

It might surprise you that hiring a lawyer you trust can put your mind at ease when you know he’s handling the legal technicalities so you can lead a productive life.

If you have questions about your rights or how you can defend your case, call us right now at (888) 230-1841, or start an email or live chat right where you are.


Rob Usry
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Rob is a Spartanburg personal injury lawyer. Rob also practices as a workers' compensation attorney.