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Can I say no if a police officer asks to search my car?

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures. The Utah State Constitution provides similar protections. If a police officer does not have a search warrant, you are generally free to say "no" if a police officer asks for permission to search your car.

If you are a suspect or defendant in a Utah criminal case resulting from evidence obtained by police during a search, an experienced criminal defense attorney can be play a critical role in creating an effective defense strategy. Based in Salt Lake City, criminal attorney Stephen Howard has protected his clients rights in a variety of cases involving police searches. He has a track record of achieving real results for his clients. Contact us today to arrange for an initial consultation.

Fourth Amendment Warrant Requirements

In general, if a police officer does not have a search warrant, you will generally be free to refuse a request for permission to search a vehicle owned or controlled by you. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution does not forbid all searches and seizures by police. Instead, these Constitutional protections guard against "unreasonable" searches and seizures.

But there are some exceptions to the warrant requirement, where courts have determined that warrantless searches are not unreasonable. If police can meet one of these exceptions, then a police officer can seize and search a vehicle and its contents without a warrant and without your permission.

Exceptions to the Warrant Requirement

Police may be permitted to seize and search property if they are able to meet one of the recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement. For example, if an item is in plain view on the dashboard of a vehicle, and if the nature of the item is such that it is readily apparent to the officer that the item is evidence of a crime or is itself illegal contraband, then police may be able to enter the vehicle and seize the item without a warrant.

Police may also permitted to seize or search property when an officer is acting in the capacity of a community caretaker. The community caretaker function is taken on when a police officer is not actively seeking evidence of a crime, but is instead acting to protect the health or safety of an individual or of the community. For example, if police receive reliable information that an infant has been abandoned or left alone in a home, police may be permitted to enter the home without a warrant to make sure that the infant is safe and not in danger. If during the course of searching for the infant, police find drugs or other evidence of criminal activity in plain view, they may be permitted to secure and use that evidence in a subsequent criminal case even though no warrant was obtained prior to the search and seizure.

"Hot pursuit" is another exception to the warrant requirement. If police personally observe a crime occur, they may pursue and arrest ("seize") the suspect without a warrant. If during the course of that pursuit, police also find additional evidence, they may be permitted to use that evidence against the suspect even though a warrant was not first obtained.

Vehicles (cars, trucks, etc.) also form the basis for another common exception to the warrant requirement based on exigent circumstances. Because cars, trucks, and other vehicles can be readily moved or concealed by simply driving away, parking in a garage, etc., the courts have recognized that evidence contained in a vehicle are more easily hidden or destroyed. Courts are therefore often more lenient in the application of the warrant requirement when a car or other vehicle is the subject of a warrantless search.

A discussion of all of the warrant exceptions applicable to vehicles is beyond the scope of what can be covered on this website. If you have been charged with a crime or are under investigation in a case that involves a search of your vehicle or other property, consultation with an experienced criminal lawyer is vital.

Consequences if Police Search Without a Warrant

Under Utah law, if a police officer searches your car without a warrant, without consent, and without meeting an exception to the warrant requirement, then evidence found by the officer during that search or as a subsequent result of that search can be suppressed. The courts can use the "fruit of the poisonous tree" doctrine to suppress not just the evidence obtained directly through an unconstitutional search, but also evidence obtained indirectly as a result of information or evidence obtained through the unlawful search or seizure.

In order to obtain a suppression order, a motion to suppress evidence must be filed with the court. Normally the motion process will include an evidentiary hearing, where evidence and testimony can be presented by both the prosecutor and the defense. Following the evidentiary hearing, the court may require both sides to prepare legal briefs or memoranda outlining the relevant law as well as an analysis of how the law applies to the specific facts of the case.

Finding a Utah Criminal Defense Attorney in Salt Lake City

Utah Criminal Defense LawyerIf you believe your constitutional rights have been violated by an unlawful search or seizure, or if you are facing criminal charges in Utah, an experienced criminal lawyer can make all the difference in your case. Based in Salt Lake City, criminal defense attorney Stephen Howard provides legal services to clients throughout Utah. His track record includes not guilty verdicts and dismissals on some of the most serious charges on the books in Utah.

Contact us now to schedule an initial consultation.

RELATED QUESTIONS:
Do police need a warrant before entering a home?
Do police have to show a copy of a search warrant before entering a home?
Can police arrest a person based on a hunch?


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Serving Salt Lake, Davis, Weber, Utah, Cache, Tooele, Summit, Box Elder, and Wasatch Counties, and all of Utah.

Attorney Stephen Howard practices as part of the Canyons Law Group, LLC and Stephen W. Howard, PC.

Offices in Salt Lake and Davis Counties
560 South 300 East, Suite 200, Salt Lake City, UT 84111
952 S. Main St., Suite A, Layton, UT 84041

Call now to arrange for a confidential initial consultation with an experienced and effective Utah criminal defense lawyer.

In Salt Lake City, call 801-449-1409.
In Davis County, call 801-923-4345.

Stephen W. Howard, PC

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