Can police search your vehicle without a search warrant on hand?

| Jan 12, 2018 | Firm News

Here’s a criminal law-based hypothetical for our Arkansas readers to mull upon.

Say that you’ve got a vehicle parked solidly within the confines of your yard. It’s right next to your house, unquestionably on private property, and you’ve got it draped under tarp to protect it from the elements.

The next thing you know, you’re in handcuffs at the local police station, destined for a trial date, a criminal conviction and a prison term.

That train of events ensued following a police officer’s view of the covered vehicle. Suspecting for various reasons that the car was evidence in a criminal case, the officer simply strode up to it, ripped off the tarp, wrote down the VIN number, and … presto, you’re behind bars.

Is there anything that seems disturbing — even flat-out wrong — about that scenario?

We suspect that many of our readers might reasonably point to the lack of a search warrant to enter private property as being troublesome. Even for an officer who allegedly has probable cause to conduct a search, isn’t a warrant secured beforehand a constitutional imperative?

The above hypothetical is close to the actual fact pattern of a case that will soon be considered on appeal by the U.S. Supreme Court. In the “real case,” the vehicle was a motorcycle that prosecutors say was stolen and used to commit crimes. They contend that the officer who conducted the warrantless search had proper cause to do so and couldn’t wait to secure a warrant.

The state of Virginia forcefully argues that a time-honored exception to the warrant requirement exists for automobiles in a manner not equally relevant to homes. Two levels of court review have sanctioned that argument and found against the defendant.

The bike owner’s legal team hopes that the third time in court will be lucky for their client. They argue that what played out on his private property violated Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

As with all SCOTUS reviews of lower court rulings, this one is important. We will be sure to provide readers with the material details emerging from the high court’s decision.

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