Any person in Florida has a right to be free from illegal searches and seizures. This applies not only to the person him/herself but also a residence, a vehicle and just about anything else belonging to the person that is not out in the open for anyone to see. However, there are instances when a police officer can search a person, a home, a vehicle or other private area. When vehicles are involved, there are specific circumstances when a police search is permitted. One of the most common instances is when the police officer asks for consent to search from the driver or owner of the vehicle. A person is certainly not required to give that consent (and we always wonder why one does when there are drugs in the vehicle), but that seems to be the most common scenario where a police officer lawfully searches a person’s vehicle and finds drugs or other evidence resulting in an arrest. A search warrant will also allow a police officer to search a vehicle.
One other mechanism for police searches of vehicles has been limited by the courts recently. Police used to have free reign to search a vehicle after an arrest of the vehicle occupant. Based on new court rulings discussed elsewhere on our blog, police are significantly limited in searching vehicles subsequent to an arrest.
One other situation that allows police to search a vehicle without a search warrant or consent deals with the inventory search. When the police arrest the driver of a vehicle and there is no other person to drive the car from the scene, the police may decide to have the vehicle towed to a secure location. The law says that the police are permitted to conduct an inventory search of the vehicle in these circumstances. The purpose of the inventory search is to inventory anything of value in the vehicle so the owner’s property can be secured and returned to the owner. Of course, if the police find drugs or other evidence of criminal activity in the vehicle during the inventory search, the police can use that evidence against the occupant.
However, inventory searches are limited. The police cannot use the inventory search as an excuse to search a vehicle when no other valid basis for the search exists. Inventory searches are only valid when they are conducted pursuant to standardized criteria. In other words, the police must have standard rules for when and how an inventory search is conducted that apply equally in all such cases. If the police officer decides to conduct an inventory search in some cases but not in others, or changes the manner of the inventory searches in different cases, the rule requiring standardized criteria for inventory searches is violated and the searches should be ruled invalid. In that case, any evidence of drugs or other criminal activity should be thrown out of court after the appropriate motion to suppress filed by the criminal defense lawyer.