It’s a familiar scene on the side of Texas highways: a car has been pulled over by law enforcement and officers are searching the vehicle while the driver is asked to stand a short distance away. Once law enforcement has either acquired a valid search warrant or established that one of the three exceptions to the search warrant requirement applies (as discussed in Part I of this post), the officer is allowed to search any area of the vehicle or any container within the vehicle in which the contraband he is looking for could reasonably fit. For example, if the officer has probable cause to believe that there is marijuana in a vehicle because he smells the scent of marijuana, he may look in any part of the vehicle or any container within the vehicle that is large enough to fit marijuana inside. “Containers” in this context can include the driver and passenger’s personal belongings, such as a purse or backpack. Because of the potentially small size of much contraband, this means that an officer could be permitted to search virtually every area of a vehicle or every container in a vehicle. In contrast, if the officer has probable cause to believe that there is a larger item such as an illegal assault rifle in the vehicle, he would not be permitted to search in an area as small as the glove compartment as there is no conceivable way an assault rifle could be concealed there. A common misconception in vehicle searches is that a locked compartment is enough to require law enforcement to obtain a search warrant–this is often not true. An officer with probable cause may simply use the vehicle’s key to unlock one of these areas, and may even be permitted to break into them in certain situations.
An important warrantless search that many drivers are unaware of are inventory searches, which are completed after a driver has been arrested and his vehicle impounded. During an inventory search, an officer will go through the vehicle and make a list of all of the items inside, which will then be kept on file with the police department. Inventory searches are designed to ensure that all of an arrested owner’s property is kept safe during the vehicle’s impoundment while protecting the police department from false claims of theft. (Moberg v. State, 810 S.W.2d 190, 193 (Tex. Crim. App. 1991). While taking an inventory, officers may look in all areas of the vehicle, including locked compartments and closed containers, as long as they are following the specific policy of their police department.
Lastly, every driver should be aware that under civil forfeiture, government officials could seize vehicles, cash or other valuables containing or found in the presence of contraband and then file a civil lawsuit for ownership of those items. In some situations, items may be seized and forfeited even after the owner was not convicted in his criminal trial.
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Gilbert Garcia has been Passionately Pursuing Justice for over 30 years and founded The Gilbert G. Garcia Law Firm in 2008. The Gilbert G. Garcia Law Firm is a boutique law firm, specializing in Criminal Defense. Gilbert represents adults and juveniles accused of a crime and who have with a felony, misdemeanor or record cleaning case. Conveniently located on the courthouse square to serve Montgomery and Walker Counties. Gilbert became Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in 1989. The Gilbert G. Garcia Law Firm is located at 220 N. Thompson St., Suite 202, Conroe, TX 77301. www.ggglawfirm.com.
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