This is the next post in our series on helping Arkansas residents understand when their rights have been violated. Our last post discussed the rights of a citizen when they are stopped and searched by a police officer on the street. This post will discuss the rules an officer must follow when stopping and searching a vehicle.
Arkansas police must establish probable cause prior to searching a vehicle without a warrant
Evidence must have been obtained legally from a vehicle for prosecutors to introduce it in an Arkansas criminal trial. Searching a vehicle is legal if 1) the officer has reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct which justifies stopping the car or 2) the driver gives consent for the search.
A number of circumstances create the “reasonable suspicion” that an officer needs to stop a car. Minor traffic violations such as speeding, expired vehicle registration, broken tail lights, or talking on one’s cell phone are all legitimate reasons to pull over a vehicle – these violations are considered “offenses” after all. However, police officer’s may not target specific individuals; for example, it is not legal to racially profile or pull a vehicle over based on the driver’s race. Another example is that an officer may not pull one over simply because they are leaving a bar; the officer must observe the driver actually doing something wrong.
Once a vehicle has been pulled over then the officer may search the inside of the car for the purposes of officer safety. Police may not, however, search inside of closed items such as a suitcase or container. Searching such items generally requires a search warrant. United States Supreme Court decisions, in recent years, have extended the level of protection people enjoy in their cars and, as a result, Arkansas drivers now have a better chance of evidence being excluded from Court.
Your criminal defense attorney should try to establish that the officer’s vehicle search violated the Fourth Amendment
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the unreasonable search and seizure of persons or their belongings. If an officer searches your car, in violation of the rules explained above, then the officer will have violated the Fourth Amendment. When evidence is collected in violation of the Amendment then your attorney can request that such evidence not be introduced in an Arkansas criminal court. A Court, however, will not exclude the evidence on its own. Your attorney must file a “Motion to Suppress” to request that the Court disallow the evidence. Hiring an attorney who understands these issues is crucial to many criminal prosecutions such as matters involving drug related charges, marijuana offenses, or other issues involving search and seizure. If you feel your rights were violated during a vehicle stop then you should contact an attorney immediately.