Individuals charged with crimes, including driving under the influence (DUI), often have some type of contact with a law enforcement officer who stopped and / or investigated them under suspicion of criminal activity. While being stopped or investigated by law enforcement is not a welcomed experience many expect or plan for, it is important to know your rights when you come into contact with police – especially when it comes to searches and seizures.
Under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, you are protected from an unlawful search and seizure. This is one of the most important rights you have, and it applies to situations where you are suspected of a crime, as well as the special rules law enforcement officers must abide by when they conduct an investigations, perform a search of your person or property, and / or make an arrest.
Below, our criminal defense lawyers explain some important details about your rights and vehicle searches:
- Stopping a Suspect – In most cases, your Fourth Amendment right requires officers to have reasonable suspicion to stop you under suspicion of committing a crime. This can be as simple as pulling a driver over for a moving violation, seeing a person actually committing a crime, or, in DUI cases, a result of an officer noting signs of impairment in your driving behavior, such as swerving. Because police officers can’t pull vehicles over or stop suspects on a whim, without violating their rights, they must have sufficient justification for doing so.
- Lawful Search and Seizure – In order for a police officer to lawfully search your person or your property, they must have either (1) a valid arrest warrant, (2) a valid search warrant, or (3) probable cause. If officers were to conduct a search without any warrant or without probable cause, they may be violating your rights, and any evidence they obtain through the unlawful search and seizure could be ruled inadmissible in your case. This can provide a major break in defending against allegations, as prosecutors will have less evidence to prove their charges.
- Probable Cause – Any search of your person or property needs to be based on probable cause (unless you consented to a search or an officer saw something in their limited search for their own safety). By definition, probable cause is an officer’s reasonable belief that you have or are committed a crime. Law enforcement can establish probable cause for conducting a search in a number of ways, such as when your vehicle matches the description of a suspect’s vehicle.
- Exceptions – Although law enforcement needs to have a warrant or probable cause to conduct a search in most cases, there are some exceptions. This includes searches at secure facilities like airports (in the interest of public safety), searches as border checkpoints, and DUI stops. With a DUI stop, officers must still have reasonable suspicion to stop your vehicle (unless it occurs at a sobriety checkpoint). However, they don’t need to have a warrant to conduct a further investigation, as the Supreme Court has ruled that occupants of vehicles have lower expectations of privacy than they do in their private homes, and because vehicles are mobile and can transport weapons or contraband for the commission of a crime. Officers may justify a further investigation by noting signs of impairment (slurred speech, smell of alcohol, or red eyes), seeing evidence in plain sight (an open container in the center console), and more. Evidence they obtain through their investigation can provide the probable cause they need to arrest you.
Your Fourth Amendment right is one of the most important rights you have when it comes to unlawful searches and seizures, and it is critical to ensure those rights were not violated during your arrest. Although there are complex laws and some exceptions involving in investigations and searches, including those stemming from traffic stops and DUI stops, you still have rights and law enforcement still has rules to abide by.
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As Berkeley County criminal defense lawyers, our legal team at Sutton & Janelle, PLLC understands that we play an important role in the system of checks and balances so very important to our legal system. Our government and its agents need to be held accountable for following rules of procedure, just as they expect citizens to abide by the law.
Part of our role in representing clients charged with crimes, including DUI offenses, is to ensure law enforcement abided by all protocol when conducting stops, preliminary investigations, searches, and arrests. When they fail to do so, we can use their violation of your rights as part of a viable defense strategy, in addition to other points we note when preparing a defense. If you have questions about an arrest and criminal allegation, including those stemming from a search or DUI stop, contact us for a FREE and confidential consultation.