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Vehicle Searches in Indiana

Traffic Stop Driving While License Suspended and vehicle searches

Vehicle Searches – What’s Legal? 

Many clients come to Chambers Law Office with questions about vehicle searches and drug charges. Maybe they were stopped and the officer claimed to smell marijuana, or maybe they consented to a search and the officer found a joint. No matter the situation, there are always a lot of questions about whether the search of a car was legal and if we can have the evidence suppressed. This article will briefly review the laws surrounding vehicle searches and how they may effect a criminal case. 

Vehicle Searches and Plain View/Smell

Typically, in order to search a person or place, the police need a warrant. However, there are exceptions to the warrant requirement. One of those exceptions is the plain view exception, and an extension of that, the plain smell exception. Cody v. State (702 N.E.2d 364).

What this means is that if a police officer stops your car and smells the odor of marijuana, the officer has probable cause to believe there is marijuana in the car and they can search the car and containers within that car for marijuana. Additionally, if the officer finds evidence of another crime in plain view during this search, that evidence may be used, as well. 

It is not uncommon for a police officer to state in a police report that based on their training and experience, they smelled the distinct odor of burnt or raw marijuana, which they then use to search the car and containers. Whether or not the smell of marijuana was actually readily apparent is an issue that would have to be questioned in court in a suppression hearing, if that is at issue. 

Vehicle Searches and Consent

Another way that officers can search a vehicle for marijuana or other drugs or contraband is by securing consent. If a person is stopped for a traffic violation, there is nothing stopping the officer from asking for consent to search the car. If consent is voluntarily given to search the vehicle, the officer may search. 

However, consent can be limited, so a person who grants consent to search the interior of the car can refuse consent to unlock the trunk or refuse consent to search a closed box. This refusal cannot be used as probable cause to search or obtain a warrant. Additionally, if the person is considered to be in custody, the officer must read the individual Pirtle Rights, which notify the person that consent is voluntary, that they can consult an attorney and they have a right to refuse. (See more about Pirtle warnings here).

Vehicle Searches and Drug Dog Sniffs (K-9 Searches)

Sometimes, when a car is stopped, an officer will call for a drug dog if they suspect the person may have marijuana or other drugs in the vehicle. It is legal for the police to walk a drug sniffing dog around a vehicle, but there are some exceptions.

The biggest rule regarding K-9 searches is that the officer cannot prolong a traffic stop just to get the K-9 to the scene. A K-9 search is not considered a search under the 4th Amendment, but a prolonged stop to conduct the search is an illegal seizure of the person. Therefore, the Supreme Court has held that a police officer cannot extend a traffic stop past the point it takes to complete the traffic stop in order to conduct a K-9 sniff. Thus, if it only takes an officer 5 minutes to stop a driver for a broken tail light and write a ticket, making the person wait even an additional minute or two would be illegal. (See Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1609). 

Vehicles Searches Incident to Arrest and Inventory Searches

The other main reason the police will search a client’s vehicle is after making an arrest. This is called a search incident to arrest or an inventory search, depending on the circumstances. Often, a person will be stopped for a traffic infraction and either arrested for OVWI or some other crime or the officer will discover a warrant and place the person under arrest. In these situations, the officer can search the vehicle under specific circumstances.

Search Incident to Arrest – If a person is arrested and was in a vehicle, if the police have reason to believe that evidence directly related to that crime is in the vehicle, they can search the car without a warrant. Thus, if a person is arrested for driving while suspended, the police cannot search the car for drugs without probable cause and a warrant. But, if a person is arrested for marijuana and the police have probable cause to believe there is additional evidence connected to the marijuana in the car, they can search the vehicle. (See Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332). 

Inventory Search – If a person is arrested and the car is lawfully towed by the police, they may conduct an inventory search of the car. The purpose of an inventory search is to protect the person’s vehicle and contents after being towed. Any evidence found during a lawful inventory search can be used in court. However, in order to qualify as a lawful inventory search, the police must follow official operating procedures as detailed in writing by their police agency. If the standard operating procedures are not followed or the towing of the vehicle was not necessary, the search, and evidence found as a result of the search, may be suppressed.

Indianapolis Criminal Defense Attorney

At Chambers Law Office, we represent clients facing misdemeanor and felony charges and fight illegal vehicles searches throughout central Indiana, including in Marion County, Hamilton, Hancock, Boone, Shelby and Johnson Counties. As a former Marion County deputy prosecutor, Julie Chambers has years of experience in the criminal courts on both sides of the aisle. If you have questions about a criminal charge in Indiana or a vehicle search, contact Chambers Law Office today at 317-450-2971. 

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