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Can Police Search a Passenger During a Traffic Stop?

Posted On: August 14th, 2020   |   Posted by: Luftman, Heck & Associates LLP
police officer checking driver's license

The rules for legally searching a vehicle are different than if you were stopped on the street. Under the “automobile exception” established by the U.S. Supreme Court, only probable cause is required.

Therefore, any property of the owner can be searched in good faith. However, does this rule extend to a car’s passengers? According to the Ohio district court of appeals, during consent searches, it does not.

If you were a passenger in a car and a search of your property resulted in criminal charges, discuss your rights and options with an experienced Columbus criminal lawyer at Luftman, Heck, & Associates.

Call (614) 500-3836 24/7 for a free consultation.

Ohio Court Decision on Vehicle Searches

A few years ago, the 9th District Court of Appeals overturned State v. Chojnowski.

In this case, a police officer called to investigate possible illegal prostitution searched a vehicle with the consent of the owner after determining that nothing illegal was going on. The female passenger had left her purse on the seat of the car and the officer proceeded to search its contents without asking for permission.

Upon finding illegal drug paraphernalia, the officer arrested the woman who was later sentenced to 30 days in jail.

At the appeal, the court determined that the search was not warranted because the officer knew that the purse did not belong to the owner of the car and he did not have probable cause to access her belongings. Therefore, the judge ruled that the search did not fall under the exception. So the woman’s conviction was overturned.

What Does This Mean for Me or My Passengers?

Based on this ruling, law enforcement has no right to search a passenger’s belongings not jointly owned by the driver without consent. This means that if your car is pulled over when you are a passenger, you do not have to consent to a search of your bag.

This is different than if a car is searched under the automobile exception because when an officer has probable cause that your vehicle contains contraband, the officer can search anywhere it could be hidden.

Still, this means that your right to privacy remains intact, even if the driver chooses to waive them. It is your Fourth Amendment right to protect yourself from unreasonable searches and seizures, and it is not incriminating to say no.

What if the Police Search Anyway?

If law enforcement insists on a search, make sure to state clearly that you do not consent. But do not try to stop them. Any evidence found during an illegal search should be thrown out in court.

In general, you should feel comfortable taking advantage of your civil rights and decline a vehicle search without probable cause. It is always in your best interest to exercise the rights provided in the Constitution.

Contact LHA for Help

If you feel the police conducted an illegal search, contact the dedicated Columbus criminal defense lawyers at Luftman, Heck, & Associates at (614) 500-3836 today for a free consultation.

We have years of experience fighting for the rights of Columbus citizens and will stop at nothing to ensure yours are protected too.



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