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As we have talked about in the past, the rules regarding legal searches of a vehicle are different than those normally required. Under the “automobile exception” established by the U.S. Supreme Court, only probable cause or is required. In these situations, any property of the owner can be searched in good faith. Many people have wondered, though, if this rule extends to personal property of passengers in the vehicles. According to the Ohio District Court of Appeals, during consent searches, it does not.
In a recent ruling, the 9th District Court of Appeals ruled to overturn State v. Chojnowski. In this case, a police officer called to investigate possible illegal prostitution activity had done a search of 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 after pleading no contest.
At the appeal, the judge determined that the search was not warranted, as the police officer knew that the purse did not belong to the owner of the car and that there was not probable cause that he also had access to the belongings. Therefore, the judge ruled that the search did not fall under the exception. Her conviction was overturned.
Based on this ruling, law enforcement has no right to search the belongings of a passenger that are 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 any location where 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 behavior to say no. 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 must 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 interests to exercise those rights provided for in the Constitution. If you feel that police conducted an illegal search or found anything incriminating during a search, contact the dedicated Columbus criminal defense lawyers at Luftman, Heck, & Associates at today for a free consultation on your case. We have years of experience fighting for the rights of Columbus citizens and will stop at nothing to ensure yours are protected too.