As has been discussed many times in these pages, the Fourth Amendment secures the right to be free of searches absent a warrant establishing probable cause. A law enforcement search without probable cause is unlawful. …Or so they say.
Over the years, many exceptions to this right have been carved out. One exception to the Fourth Amendment is vehicle searches. While probable cause to search a vehicle is nominally still in effect, the threshold is lower. Warrantless searches of a vehicle and contents therein may be searched if a law enforcement officer can establish probable cause that some sort of criminal activity is afoot. (Other exceptions apply, such as consent to search and a search incident to arrest, but here we will discuss a search of a vehicle based on probable cause.) Under the automobile exception, a search of a vehicle is lawful if the search is based on facts that would otherwise justify the issuance of a search warrant. The courts have found probable cause to search a vehicle based on ambiguous facts, such as the officer observed the driver or passengers making furtive movements, or the nervousness of the driver coupled with other observations.
But how far can the search go? Recently, the California Court of Appeals held that officers cannot search the trunk of a vehicle if the search was conducted on probable cause that contraband or evidence was located in the passenger portion of the vehicle. The case, People v. Leal (2023) 93 Cal. App. 5th 1143 binds officers to a probable cause search only to those portions of a vehicle where facts observed or known to officers justify the search.
In the Leal case, officers observed that the defendant had an illegal firearm in his front waistband. The officers then observed the defendant walking to his vehicle and after opening the door, sat in the rear seat and appeared to deposit the firearm in the vehicle. The defendant then left the vehicle. Later, the defendant drove the vehicle away from the location. The officers followed him and eventually detained him. The officers searched the interior of the vehicle, but no firearm was found. The officers then searched the trunk of the vehicle where the firearm was found.
The defendant challenged the search as unlawful by way of a motion to suppress the evidence (the firearm). While the trial court denied the motion on the grounds that the search was justified under the automobile exception, the appellate court reversed that decision. As the appellate court stated: “To allow police officers to search outside the scope of the particular location or compartment within which there is probable cause to believe contraband or evidence of a crime will be located would permit the very exploratory searches the framers intended to prevent when they enacted the Fourth Amendment.”
Thus, the court concluded that when officers find probable cause to search a particular area of a vehicle and the evidence is not found, the search must stop. This case applied to the unlawful search of the trunk, but it could apply in other instances. If, for example, the officers search the interior of a vehicle believing evidence is inside the car, they cannot then tear apart the vehicle looking for the evidence if it was not found in the interior of the car where officers initially had probable cause to believe the evidence was located.
Orange County criminal defense attorney William Weinberg is available for a complimentary consultation to discuss your criminal matter. He may be contacted by calling his Irvine officer 949-474-8008 or by emailing him at email@example.com.