10 Truths & Myths About Vehicle Searches by Police in SC

by | Dec 24, 2016 | Criminal Defense, Drug Charges, Fourth Amendment | 0 comments


One minute you’re driving down the highway singing along to your favorite tune on the radio. The next minute, you’re being handcuffed by one police officer while another is asking for permission to search your vehicle.

Don’t the police need a search warrant to perform vehicle searches in South Carolina? You think you remember hearing that you can refuse a vehicle search and the police will have to let you go. But you also remember reading a news article where a person refused to let the police search his vehicle and ended up in jail.

How much of what you’ve seen on TV or heard from friends about search and seizure law is really true?

10 Common Truths & Myths About Vehicle Searches

I hear questions from my clients about vehicle searches frequently. Some of the things they have heard are correct, but much of it is a myth. What we see on TV or hear on the news isn’t always accurate!

For this reason I’ve put together a list of 10 truths and myths about vehicle searches in South Carolina below.

Myth #1: If a police officer asks to search my vehicle and I don’t consent, I’ll look guilty.

Truth : Refusing a vehicle search is your legal right. It is not an admission of guilt.

Refusing to consent to a vehicle search does not automatically mean you are guilty of committing a crime, nor does it make you look guilty. It is your legal right to refuse the search as well as to remain silent. Consent cannot be implied from silence.

If you consent, the police have the authority to search your entire car. Even if you think there’s nothing illegal in your car, it may be in your best interest to refuse.

Myth #2: If I refuse to consent to a vehicle search, a police officer can’t ever search my trunk.

Truth: Even if you refuse a vehicle search, the officer may still be able to search your trunk.

If the officer has probable cause to believe that evidence of a crime is in your car, he or she has the right to search the area of the car that the evidence could be found.

For example, if the officer has probable cause to believe you have a duffle bag full of stolen shotguns in your car, he or she can search any place in the car where that bag may be. Since a shotgun can’t be found inside your glove compartment, or inside a small plastic bin on the floor, he or she most likely wouldn’t be able to search there, but it doesn’t mean the search won’t happen. The point is that the search has to be reasonable. It isn’t reasonable to look for something in a place it couldn’t possibly be found.

A police officer can also walk a drug-sniffing dog around your car. If the dog hits on the trunk of your car, the officer has probable cause to believe that drugs will be contained within the trunk. Now he or she can look in the trunk.

These are just a couple of examples of ways the police could get inside your trunk without using your consent. There are many other ways this could happen as well.

Myth #3: Police officers can’t go and get a search warrant for something I told them they can’t search.

Truth: Yes, they can and will obtain a search warrant without your consent.

If you don’t consent to a vehicle search, an officer can go and get a search warrant to be able to conduct the search. In most cases, you will have to remain at the site where you were pulled over and wait for the officer to return with the search warrant. This may sound ridiculous, but it does happen.

Myth #4: I was arrested after a roadside stop, but that doesn’t mean police officers can search my vehicle.

Truth: Police officers can search your vehicle if you are arrested.

If an officer arrests you as a result of pulling you over, he or she can also search your vehicle under the search incident to arrest exception to the warrant requirement. According to this exception, the officer may search any area of the vehicle that you reasonably could have accessed to hide a weapon or something that could injure an officer while being stopped. This includes the glove box, in and under the seats, in the center console, and inside any opened or closed containers located in those areas. This does not include the trunk since it’s unreasonable to believe you were able to access the trunk while operating a moving vehicle.

Another thing to remember about a search incident to arrest is that if the cop does arrest you, he or she has probable cause to search any area in which contraband related to the arrest could be found. For example, if the arrest has something to do with drugs it is likely that a cop can search everywhere since drugs could be hidden almost anywhere inside a vehicle.

Ultimately, if you’re arrested after a traffic stop, the police officer can impound your vehicle. When a vehicle has been impounded, the police can search every area within your car under the inventory exception to the warrant requirement.

Myth #5: If I don’t give consent for a police officer to search my car, the officer can’t search it without a search warrant.

Truth: A police officer can conduct vehicle searches in South Carolina without your consent and without a search warrant.

If you are arrested as a result of the traffic stop, the search incident to arrest exception to the warrant requirement permits police officers to search your vehicle without your consent or a search warrant. Other situations that could give an officer the authority to search your car without your consent or a search warrant are:

  • Probable cause
  • Search for weapons
  • Illegal items in plain view
  • Inventory search upon arrest and impoundment of vehicle

Myth #6: If I’m a passenger in a car that gets stopped by police, but I don’t own the car, the police can’t search my belongings.

Truth: If you’re a passenger in a car that gets stopped, the police CAN search your belongings.

Once the police have probable cause to search a car, it doesn’t matter whether the objects they search belong to the driver or the passengers. The officers can search any object that is capable of concealing whatever they are searching for.

If the search results in the discovery of incriminating evidence, the police can arrest the driver and the passengers.

Myth #7: If an officer asks to search me, I can say no just like I can say no to a search of my vehicle.

Truth: You can say no to a search of your person, but in most cases, an officer will be able to search you anyway.

A police officer is almost always allowed to stop and “frisk” you for weapons or anything that you may use to hurt them. If the cop uncovers evidence of a crime during this short search of your person, it is legitimate and can be used against you.

Myth #8: If I get pulled over, I don’t have to do anything the officer asks or answer any questions.

Truth: If you get pulled over in South Carolina, you have the right to remain silent, but there are instructions given by the officer that you must follow.

You may assert your right to remain silent, but it is in your best interest to be polite and courteous about it. Remember, the officer is just doing his or her job.

There are things that you do have to comply with when the police officer asks such as handing over your license, registration, and proof of insurance when he or she asks for it.

Myth #9: Police officers need probable cause to search my car. Period.

Truth: Police officers sometimes only need reasonable suspicion to search your car.

Police officers need probable cause (sufficient facts and circumstances) to make an arrest. But if they have reasonable suspicion (reason to suspect evidence of criminal activity based on the officer’s training and experience) that you are carrying weapons or illegal contraband in your vehicle, they may search for it.

Myth #10: If the police find evidence of a crime in my vehicle, I might as well confess.

Truth: You absolutely do not have to confess even if the police find evidence of a crime in your vehicle during a search.

Regardless of what the police find in your vehicle, you do not have to say anything. You may exercise your right to remain silent, even if you are arrested. It is best to keep quiet and never confess to anything in the absence of your lawyer. Even if evidence of criminal activity has been found in your vehicle, this does not mean you will be found guilty of any crime.

You should never assume that just because evidence was found against you, you should confess and get it over with. An experienced criminal attorney can pick your case apart looking for details and may even get evidence thrown out.

The Bottom Line

You don’t have to consent to a vehicle search in any situation, but the vehicle search may still be legal with or without your consent and with or without a search warrant.

It’s important to have the help of an experienced criminal attorney to comb through the facts of your case. Sometimes evidence can get thrown out that was discovered by means of an illegal vehicle search. The only way to know this and build your defense, however, is with the help of an attorney.

If you would like to discuss your case contact Coastal Law today at (843) 488-5000, or complete our online form.

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