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MD Vehicle Searches in DUI Stops

If an officer pulls you over on suspicion of driving under the influence (DUI) of drugs and/or alcohol, it is critical that you understand that his or her job is to protect the citizenry from dangerous drivers. As a DUI lawyer in Maryland can tell you, this means the officer will be singularly focused on gathering any and all evidence that points to your guilt. From the moment you see the flashing flights in your rear view mirror and hear the wail of the siren, you should conduct yourself with the knowledge that the officer has the right and the intent to search for and gather evidence from your person and your vehicle.

Police offers, however, must follow specific procedures during a DUI traffic stop and in the commission of a search of your car or truck. It is crucial, therefore, that you understand your rights as they relate to such stops and searches. For example, an officer might cite a furtive or sudden movement on your part as “probable cause” to search your car. Perhaps you were reaching for your license or proof of insurance, and not trying to hide anything. Unfortunately, the threshold for establishing probable cause is extremely low. Nonetheless, it must be met and if you believe you were stopped and unfairly searched you need to speak with a Maryland DUI attorney immediately, while the facts of your detention and citation are still fresh in your mind.

If you or a loved one has been charged with DUI in Maryland, our team of attorneys has the collective experience and success to aggressively defend against a variety of DUI-related charges. We can conduct a thorough investigation into the circumstances of your charge to determine if your rights were violated, and can work to uncover evidence to undermine the prosecution’s case. For information specific to your case, call our Maryland law office today. For a quick review of what you should know regarding DUI stops and police searches, feel free to refer to this page as a general guide.

The Fourth Amendment and DUI Stops

The Fourth Amendment provides certain safeguards against warrantless searches and seizures. This protection extends to the illegal search of your vehicle by police during a DUI stop. The Supreme Court of the United States has found that your right to privacy regarding your vehicle carries less weight than the constitutional protection afforded to you when inside your home. There remains, however, a certain degree of protection and right to privacy regarding your vehicle under U.S. law.

In 2009, the Supreme Court handed down a decision in Herring v. United States that allowed for the so-called “good faith exception rule” to apply to a case in which a man was erroneously listed as having a warrant for his arrest for another jurisdiction and, due to that erroneous listing, was detained by authorities in a different jurisdiction and had his vehicle searched. When the original jurisdiction called back to let the other county know that a mistake had been made and the warrant had been recalled months ago, it was too late. Bennie Herring had already been arrested after county law enforcement officers found firearms and methamphetamine in his vehicle.

There remains a fair amount of debate about whether the Herring case applies to all police searches, or only applied to the one, jurisdiction specific case. In previous SCOTUS rulings, the court created the exclusionary rules with the general purpose of suppressing evidence obtained in violation of Constitutional rights and protections, see Weeks v. United States (1914) and Mapp V. Ohio (1961) at Cornell University Law School’s online archives and resource guide.

Common Types of Vehicle Searches

In simple terms, the extent of a legal search depends on the reason the officer stopped the vehicle. The following are three basic ways an officer can legally conduct a search of your vehicle.

  • During a traffic stop an officer can conduct a search of the immediate vicinity of the driver—e.g. areas the officer can easily observe and reach upon approaching the vehicle and driver.
  • When the officer has established probable cause that there is evidence of the suspected crime that led to the traffic stop. The search may include a pat-down of the driver or a search of the trunk of their vehicle for contraband, such as containers of alcohol and prescription drug bottles.
  • Inventory searches may be carried out after a driver has been placed under arrest and the vehicle has been impounded. The purpose is to conduct an inventory of the items in the vehicle, which protect authorities from civil liability for the loss of or damage to your property.

Consent and Plain View Doctrine

There are some other aspects of a DUI stop and vehicle search that you should be aware of and that can justify a search of your car:

  • Consent – If a police officer sees he or she does not have the legal justification to search your vehicle they may ask you for permission. You do not have to give your consent. Remember, if the officer believes he has the grounds to conduct a search, he does not need to ask your permission. Therefore, you should politely but firmly deny the request.

This is particularly important if you are unsure about what may be in your vehicle. Perhaps you are driving another person’s car, or you have family or friends who use your vehicle. If you consent to a search and the officer finds something you should not have in your vehicle, you can be arrested and challenging the evidence found during the search can be problematic. Once you give your consent, the police officer can search the entire vehicle.

  • Plain View Doctrine – As previously discussed, a police officer can conduct a visual scan of your vehicle and seize evidence that is within “plain view.” For example, if you are pulled over for expired registration and the officer spots an open beer can in the vehicle, he or she does not need a warrant to confiscate the open beer.

The degree of protection varies from case to case and depends on the nature of the stop and what led to the arrest. Keep in mind, the reason you are arrested can vary from the original reason that led to the traffic stop if the police establish probable cause via the methods discussed above.

Violations of Constitutional Rights

If you have been arrested and charged you need to speak with an experienced DUI lawyer who is familiar with the Maryland court system as soon as possible. Find out what your options are for protecting your rights and the best possible defenses, which may include arguing that your constitutional rights were violated during an illegal search and seizure. A skilled attorney may be able to argue that you should not have been stopped to begin with, or that the police officer overstepped his or her authority when they conducted a search of your vehicle. A successful argument can lead to reduced or eliminated charges.

Call our law offices today to conduct your free initial consultation.