Search and Seizure of Automobiles

Search and Seizure of Automobiles

What qualifies as reasonable suspicion, and when do officers require a formal warrant to search a vehicle?

The Supreme Court recently addressed this question in Navarette v. California. In that case, officers received a 911 call that a pickup truck had forced another motorist off the road on the Pacific Coast Highway, in a remote part of northern California. Acting on this woman’s tip, the officers pulled over the defendant, searched his truck and found 30 pounds of marijuana. He filed a motion to suppress the drugs, which the trial court denied. The defendant eventually pleaded guilty, and the Court of Appeals upheld his conviction.

In a 5-4 decision, the High Court also upheld the conviction, ruling that the tip was reliable enough to warrant a traffic stop. The justice listed several factors which determine a tip’s legitimacy, including:

  • Technology: 911 calls are routinely recorded and traced, and false 911 reports are a criminal offense.
  • Elapsed Time: Officers pulled the defendant over only a few minutes after the call came in, and only a short distance from where the woman made the 911 call.
  • Details: The female caller gave a license plate number and an accurate description of the vehicle and its occupants.
  • Severity: Running someone off the road is akin to reckless driving in California and most other states, which can be evidence of DUI.

These factors are important to consider when faced with charges that result from the search of a vehicle. While it is important to remain calm and courteous when faced with officers, you also have a right to ensure that you are not illegally searched. If you feel as though a search and seizure was conducted without reasonable suspicion, then it is important that you contact an experienced lawyer who can help protect you.