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Police Search

Huw Powell commented about his experience in which the police asked 
if he would sign a release to let them search his car - and declined 
to sign one, but let them do so.

Now, I am KNOWN on this list as a strong supporter of the law 
officer, having been in those shoes.   But let's review some of the 
basics **as I recall them** (note disclaimer and realize my 
experience in this is @10 years old):

1)  A US law officer can require anyone to identify themselves, any 
time, any where, and they may require them to stop their vehicle 
in order to achieve this.

2)  If a law officer stops a car for reasons other than that above, 
the officer needs "probable cause" to belive that a crime has been 
committed.  This can be something as simple as a taillight out or 
wires hanging down (equipment violations) or touching the center line 
or white fog line (reason to believe driver may be under the 
influence).  (And cops have been known to knock out a taillight 
on their way to the driver's door in order to assure there is 
probable cause...)

3)  Once the law officer makes a stop, they do NOT have a right to 
search the car for anything which is not DIRECTLY related to the 
reason for the stop.  SO - for a taillight out, they cannot search 
the car for contraband.  BUT..IMPORTANT....if it's lying on top of 
a seat and in plain view, they CAN make an arrest...because it was in 
plain view.  There is nothing which requires them to be blind!

4)  There are a few exceptions.  For instance, IF an officer makes a 
stop and has been trained to recognize the smell of "deadly 
reefer" - and if they smell it in the car during the stop - they may 
in some jurisdictions have the right to search without consent.  Why? 
Because to a trained observer, this odor can be "probable cause".

5)  Based on the above, if I am stopped for a speeding or 
equipment violation, they can ROT before I will give permission to 
search my vehicle!  It's not related to the probable cause for their 
stop!  And I can't guarantee that something has not fallen out of a 
passenger's pocket - or I might get nervous and forget that I have a 
firearm in the vehicle.

It is common for officer to ASK to search a vehicle, because most 
people don't realize they can simply say NO and it does not prejudice 
their situation!  And I greatly deplore this kind of fishing 
expedition by officers!

Now, if they have a report of a bank robbery and your car matches the 
description, they may stop you - and search the car for guns or 
fruits of the robbery.  In that case, whether they can or cannot 
prosecute you for contraband or illegal firearms becomes hazy.  
if you didn't rob the bank, those items are NOT part of the crime, 
but whether they would be allowed in court becomes a bit more subject 
to a judge's judgement.

Bottom line: It is OK to politely but firmly require an officer to 
get a warrant to search your vehicle.  If they search it without this 
warrant or your consent and find contraband, they will have to prove 
in a court of law that it was directly related to their probable 
cause for the stop, or it should not be admitted into evidence.  As 
far as I'm concerned, they can go search someone else's car.

Al Powell, Ph.D.                 Voice:  409/845-2807
107 Reed McDonald Bldg.          Fax:    409/862-1202
College Station, TX 77843