Police officers in Florida and around the country must usually obtain a warrant before searching a suspect’s home or office, but the courts have consistently ruled that warrantless vehicle searches are permissible as long as the officer involved acted with sufficient probable cause. This means that police officers may search cars during traffic stops if they have good reason to believe that the driver or some other individual is involved in some sort of criminal activity and searching the vehicle will lead to the discovery of evidence that supports this belief.
Examples of probable cause to search vehicles without a warrant include seeing illegal drugs or weapons in plain sight, detecting the odor of drugs like marijuana and hearing a vehicle occupant confess to committing a crime. The courts have ruled that motor vehicle violations do not give officers probable cause to search a car. An exception to the probable cause standard is made when police officers have reason to believe that a suspect is armed and poses a threat to them. In these situations, officers are permitted to conduct a weapons search based on the lower standard of reasonable suspicion.
Police officers often avoid challenges to warrantless vehicle searches by obtaining permission. Motorists who worried that refusing consent would make them look guilty have been known to allow searches even though their vehicles contained drugs or other items that could send them to prison for decades.
Experienced criminal defense attorneys would likely advise their clients to avail themselves of their Fourth Amendment rights by refusing police requests to search their vehicles without a warrant. Attorneys could also recommend that motorists who are pulled over remain silent when questioned about alleged criminal activity and ask for a lawyer as soon as it becomes clear that they are facing more than a traffic ticket.