Berkeley County law enforcement is on a constant hunt for illegal drugs and people to arrest on drug charges. The highways and roads are prime hunting grounds. Many traffic stops turn into a night in jail and serious criminal charges for the driver.
As a South Carolina resident, you have several rights and protections enshrined in the U.S. and state constitutions. One of these is the right against the police searching your vehicle without a search warrant. But there are important exceptions to this rule that you need to know about.
Before a police officer can pull you over, they must have a “reasonable, articulable suspicion” that the driver is committing a crime. They often claim they observed the driver speeding or committing another traffic violation. But having legal permission to pull you over (assuming the stop was legitimate) does not give the officer the right to search your vehicle without a warrant. In general, one of four things has to happen first.
- Probable cause. The police can search a vehicle without a warrant if they have probable cause to believe there is evidence of a crime, meaning a reasonable person would agree evidence is inside. For example, officers often claim they could smell marijuana inside the vehicle and use that as justification for a probable cause search.
- Post-arrest. If the police arrest you, they can search your vehicle if the search is related to the arrest (i.e., they can search for drugs if they arrested you on drug charges).
- Consent. Without probable cause for a search or arrest, the officer could ask permission to search your car. They might word it in a way that makes it sound like it will help you or that you must comply. But as long as they are asking (and not ordering) you, you have the right to refuse. But if you say yes, the police don’t need a warrant to search the vehicle.
- Safety. An officer can make a warrantless vehicle search if they reasonably believe it is necessary for their own protection, such as if they suspect the driver has a gun inside.
Without a search warrant or one of the legal exceptions present, a police officer who searches your vehicle likely violated your rights. If so, you will need to fight to protect your rights in court to keep illegally obtained evidence.