Many routine traffic stops morph into a full fledge search of the car and its occupants. These searches are usually exceptions to the warrant requirement. Broadly speaking, they will fall into one of five categories: Plain view, Consent, K-9 sniff, incident to arrest, and an inventory search.
Any police officer is permitted to arrest someone they observe committing a crime. This principle is extended to automobiles and allows for a routine traffic stop to convert into a felony arrest. Usually, as the officer is glancing into the passenger compartment to the car he will observe a gun or drugs on a seat, in the center console, or on the floorboard of the car. When this happens, the officer is permitted to arrest the occupants, search them and the vehicle for similar evidence.
A common police tactic is to offer the driver a warning for a minor infraction provided they give consent to search the vehicle. Typically, the cop will say something like, “hey, if your license comes back clean I will give you a warning. While we wait, do you mind if I take a look into your car.” For whatever reason, people fall for this trick. And, it is permitted so long as the consent to search is free and voluntary. Recent cases suggest that consent is not voluntary when the person is on side of the road for a prolonged period of time.
Another tactic that is often associated with the consent-warning scenario is the use of a police k-9 training in narcotics detection. Since dogs have heightened sense of smell, they are able to sniff out various drugs. When they do, the law treats that as equivalent to another officer’s “plain view” and it provides probable cause to search. As such, it is not uncommon to see highway patrols equipped with a k9. This allows for the dog to do a cursory run around the car while waiting on the license check to be completed by dispatch. As with the consent cases, the time alongside of the ride is becoming a critical issue at suppression hearings.
The next two categories for search a car follow the arrest.
Search Incident To Arrest
A search incident to an arrest occurs after the driver is arrested. The officer can search the car for evidence of that arrested offense. The driver has a warrant for murder? He can search for a hidden weapon. Arrested for drugs? He can search for more drugs.
A companion to this is the inventory search. When the driver is arrested, it is not uncommon for the police to have the car towed for storage. In an effort to protect the person’s property and fend off claims for theft, officers seize its contents and document them for safe keeping. It is not uncommon that, during this process, contraband is discovered.