Unlawful Vehicle SearchChallenging a Vehicle Search
Arrests and criminal charges in San Diego frequently stem from searches of vehicles, backpacks, luggage, etc.  Whether the items found are drugs, weapons or other evidence of criminal activity, these cases are often best defended by challenging the search.  In order to challenge the Constitutional validity of a search in California, a defendant must raise the issue, asserting violations of his/her Fourth Amendment rights by the unlawful search.  At this point, the burden then is placed on the government to prove that the search did not violate the Fourth Amendment.  Our office has extensive experience with the Constitutional law that protects the rights of all citizens to be free from unlawful search and seizure.  We have successfully litigated motions to suppress in a wide range of criminal cases, including drug crimes, weapon offenses, DUI and more.  This article discusses some of the prominent cases dealing with searches of vehicles.  If it appears that you may have been the victim of an unlawful car search, contact a San Diego Criminal Defense Attorney now for a Free Consultation.  The information contained in this article should not be construed as legal advice, or as a substitute for attorney representation and consultation.  It is nevertheless important that you have a strong grasp of the law and your rights.  Vehicle searches are most commonly conducted with "consent" which the courts have interpreted very broadly to permit police intrusion into our privacy.  DO NOT CONSENT TO SEARCHES.
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Unlike a search of a home, searches of motor vehicles generally do not require a warrant.  When law enforcement goes to a judge to get a warrant, there has already been at least one judicial determination that the search is supported by probable cause.  Though a search warrant may also be challenged, warrant-less searches are more likely to be challenged and more likely to result in evidence being thrown out.  Car searches are very frequently litigated and are often the best defense in cases that rely on physical evidence.  Unfortunately, we have a diminished expectation of privacy in our cars, and the courts have repeatedly expanded police authority to search vehicles.  Officers can search a vehicle with probable cause, with consent, after arresting a recent occupant, due to "exigent circumstances" or (most broadly) for their safety.

Besides consent searches, vehicle searches are most commonly defended on probable cause grounds.  Officers claim that the evidence available to them at the time of the search was sufficient to conduct a search of the vehicle.  This standard is not a bright-line rule and is one of the most frequently litigated definitions in American jurisprudence.  In essence, a search is supported by probable cause if there is a reasonable basis that evidence of a crime will be uncovered in the place to be searched.  This can be a difficult standard to meet in the case of a vehicle search.  Evidence tending to point to guilt can include: contraband in plain sight, an informant's tip, observation of the driver's behavior and more.  If a search is based on the officer's claim of probable cause, the search should be challenged in court.  A warrant-less arrest made on the basis of probable cause can also be challenged, especially if the arrest resulted in a further search, yielding additional evidence.

After arresting the driver of a vehicle, police may then conduct a "search incident to arrest."  In Colorado v. Bertine, the US Supreme Court held that police could conduct an "inventory search" of a vehicle, even after a minor arrest for something like DUI or driving on a suspended license.  Though the arrest in Bertine did not give rise to probable cause that there would be additional evidence of criminal activity, the Court allowed the inventory search on officer safety grounds.  This power was further extended in Thornton v. United States, where the US Supreme Court allowed for a search of a vehicle based on the arrest of a recent occupant, rather than (as in Bertine) the arrest of an occupant of the car.  Thornton was not pulled over or arrested froom his vehicle; rather, he observed police following him and parked and exited his car.  He was approached by police, admitted to possessing narcotics and was arrested.  Officers then searched his parked vehicle.  The Court reasoned that even though Thornton was in their custody and secured in the back of a police car, the officers could conduct a search to ensure their safety.  This case goes to show just how unreasonable the courts can be in their extension of police power.  This power has also been limited, however, to cases where an arrest does actually take place.  In Knowles v. Iowa, the Court addressed a case where the driver could have been arrested for, but was not arrested for a traffic violation.  The officers searched the vehicle, claiming they had a right based on their ability to make an arrest.  The Court held that search invalid.

In Wyoming v. Houghton, the Court addressed a case that involved a more detailed search of the vehicle and its contents.  Houghton was arrested when police observed drugs in plain sight, then proceeded to search the car, including a backpack present in the car.  The Court upheld the search as a valid extension of the inventory search.  This ruling extends to other vehicle searches; if police have probable cause or consent to search a car, they will attempt to use that same justification to search luggage and other containers within a vehicle.  There are very fact-specific limits on this type of extension and all such searches should be challenged in court.

With a search of a home generally necessitating that police obtain a warrant, motor homes create a gray area in the law.  In the landmark case California v. Carney, the US Supreme Court addressed this very issue.  Carney lived in a motor home, but the Court nonetheless upheld a warrant-less search based on probable cause alone.  The motor home could be driven and moved quickly, and was parked in a parking lot in San Diego, not in an area generally used for residential purposes.  This is a very fact-specific inquiry, and one addressed in the TV series Breaking Bad.  The Carney ruling was limited in that this particular motor home did not qualify as a home requiring a warrant for search, though other motor homes may be more protected.  Especially motor homes connected to a permanent physical location, those connected to plumbing/electricity, etc.


If you or a loved one has been arrested or charged with a crime in San Diego, contact our office for a Free Consultation with a San Diego Criminal Defense Attorney.  We can discuss your case in detail, analyze the pertinent facts and get started on your defense.  Whether there is an unlawful search, unlawful questioning, false accusation, etc., our experienced lawyers will work hard to protect your rights.  619-930-9515

Nicholas M. Loncar, Esq.
San Diego Criminal Defense Attorney
San Diego DUI Lawyer
T: 619-930-9515
By Nicholas Loncar           


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