When can Tennessee police officers lawfully search someone’s vehicle?

On Behalf of | Dec 12, 2023 | Criminal Defense |

Police officers typically want to solve as many criminal cases as they can. They are always on the lookout for signs of legal infractions. Sometimes, officers will begin an interaction based on one issue and then look for a more serious criminal issue.

A traffic stop is a perfect example. An officer may pull someone over for excess speed or failing to use a turn signal. They might then start asking someone questions that could lead to accusations of more serious criminal offenses. Other times, officers will try to go on a fishing expedition. They may also try to search a vehicle in pursuit of evidence that would justify an arrest.

When is it legal for a Tennessee police officer to search someone’s vehicle?

When they obtain permission

The most direct way for an officer to legally search a vehicle involves asking someone for permission to do so. Drivers often want to comply with police requests and try to be as accommodating as possible. When an officer asks to look through someone’s vehicle, the driver may agree.

They probably assume that there won’t be anything in the vehicle that would cause legal complications. However, items dropped by passengers or left behind by a prior owner could make it look like someone broke the law. Drugs, paraphernalia and even weapons may turn up during a vehicle search and lead to someone’s arrest. Most drivers would benefit from politely declining when officers ask to search a vehicle.

When they have probable cause

Police officers can conduct a search if they have a reasonable suspicion that someone committed a specific criminal infraction. A driver having a criminal record or being in a high crime area is not the probable cause an officer needs to search a vehicle without someone’s consent. They typically need to suspect a specific criminal infraction and have probable cause based on what they’ve noticed. Smelling drugs in the vehicle or seeing an open container of alcohol could be reason for an officer to search without permission to do so.

When they obtain a warrant

Sometimes, police officers reach the conclusion that someone likely used their vehicle during criminal activity. They could potentially present information about their suspicions to a judge to obtain a warrant. A warrant signed by a judge is the most authoritative and easily verifiable justification to search the vehicle.

If officers conduct an illegal search, the person involved could use that violation of their rights as part of their defense strategy. Learning more about the rules limiting police searches may benefit those worried about pending criminal charges or how to handle an interaction with law enforcement professionals.



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