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Are Warrantless Car Searches Allowed in DUI Stops?

When Can the Police Search Your Car Without a Warrant?

If you got pulled over for DUI, know your rights. An officer may search your vehicle without a warrant under certain circumstances, which is why you must know what those “certain circumstances” are. Having this knowledge may help you avoid a violation of your Fourth Amendment rights, which protect you from unlawful search and seizure.

Let’s say you’re driving home on a Friday night from a long day of work. Your windows are down, the weather is nice, and you’re ready for a good weekend. Suddenly, you see red and blue lights flashing in your rearview mirror and hear the loud police sirens coming your way. You pull over and the police officer approaches your vehicle. They ask to see your ID, registration, and proof of insurance. After running your information through the system, the officer sees that you have a clean driving record with no tickets or traffic offenses. In this case, however, the officer alleges you were weaving in and out of your lane, which gave them reasonable suspicion to pull you over.

As such, they come back to your vehicle after looking you up in the system and ask you why you were weaving. “Did you have anything to drink?” “Were you on your phone?” “Can you explain why you were weaving?”

You could exercise your right to remain silent and politely refuse to answer any questions or waive your rights and answer their questions. Let’s say you respectfully refuse to answer. Irritated, the officer shines their flashlight in your vehicle in attempt to find incriminating evidence against you. They notice a bottle opener and koozie on the floor under the passenger seat. This is where things could get ugly.

Seizing Evidence in Plain View

The plain view doctrine is an exception to the Fourth Amendment that allows a police officer to seize objects not outlined in a warrant. An officer must lawfully be in a location and have probable cause to believe that such objects are tied to criminal activities. If the objects are in plain view through a window, however, then the officer may need to obtain a warrant first.

Simply put, if an officer is lawfully in a location and recognizes items in “plain view” that could be evidence of a crime, then they may conduct a warrantless search. In the example above, the officer is lawfully in a location because they had reasonable suspicion to pull you over. The contraband in plain view is the bottle opener and koozie. You were driving with the windows down, eliminating the need for the officer to obtain a search warrant.

Weaving, plus bottle opener, plus koozie equals a DUI arrest in the eyes of the police. And open windows only make it easier for them to conduct a warrantless search and obtain the incriminating evidence against you.

Facing DUI Charges?

The best way to end this nightmare is to call a lawyer as soon as you are arrested for DUI. Politely refuse to answer questions by the police until your lawyer arrives. Not only could you minimize the negative impacts of your situation, but you may also help your DUI case altogether, as taking the right precautions early on could greatly benefit you in the long run.

If you got charged with DUI in West Virginia, call The Wagner Law Firm at (304) 461-6000 to learn about your legal options!