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Is Probable Cause Alone Sufficient to Search a Car or House?

You probably know that the Fourth Amendment protects you against unreasonable searches and seizures, but few people fully understand what is meant by “unreasonable.” Generally, this means that police are required to have probable cause before searching.

So how does law enforcement show probable cause?

Generally, a judge decides whether or not there is probable cause and issues a search warrant. This search warrant is required before searching your car or home, but there are some exceptions. The following are the most common legal ways that the police can search your home or car on probable cause alone.

  • The automobile exemption: If an officer has pulled you over for a valid reason, such as speeding or another traffic charge, they do not have to get a search warrant before searching your vehicle if they have probable cause to believe there is contraband in the car. A common example would be the smell of marijuana or a report of a car with your license plate leaving a crime scene. Generally, this exemption only applies if the car is in a public place, like a street or public parking deck, and it is capable of being driven away.
  • Search incident to arrest: If you are arrested for a crime such as a DUI, the police have the right to do an inventory search of your car if it is impounded. Also, they can frisk your body for any weapons or other contraband.
  • Something illegal is in plain view, hearing, or smell: If a police officer is able to see, smell, or hear an illegal activity from a place that they are legally able to be, they have probable cause to search for the evidence without getting a search warrant first. Thant means that if you let an officer in your house to answer questions, anything in plain view could give law enforcement probable cause for a search.
  • Exigent circumstances: This exception is the most controversial. If an officer has probable cause to believe that a person is in imminent danger, evidence is being destroyed, or a suspect is escaping, the police officer can enter your home without a warrant. Usually, we think of this only as meaning that police can enter the home of someone screaming for help without a warrant. However, this can be something as minor as hearing a shredder or a toilet flush (which could be signs of destruction of evidence). They may also come in if they hear someone fleeing the home after announcing themselves. There has been some debate over this exception, as it has room for abuse, but it does mean that police only need probable cause, not a warrant.

In all of these cases, evidence found during the search can be subject to suppression if a judge does not agree that there was probable cause for a search, so even in these cases, it’s possible to get the evidence against you thrown out with the help of a Columbus defense lawyer. Just remember that if you consent to a search of your car or your home, police no longer need a warrant or even probable cause. Plus refusing a search is never considered probable cause itself. For this reason, it is better to always turn down a request by police to conduct a search. Let them go through the normal legal process of getting a warrant.

Overall, you generally should be able to expect a warrant to be issued before police search your home, and there must at least be probable cause before police search your car. If you have been arrested due to something that law enforcement found during a search, that evidence may be able to be suppressed by an experienced defense attorney in certain cases. Even if the search is upheld, you will need an attorney by your side during the legal process to ensure your rights are respected. Call defense attorney Ben Luftman and his experienced team of Columbus defense lawyers at Luftman, Heck & Associates today at for a free consultation on your case. We will aggressively fight for the best outcome for your case.

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