Can Police Search Your Car for DUI in AZ?

Can Police Search Your Car for DUI in AZ?

Can Police Search Your Car for DUI?

Police officers can stop motorists for anything from criminal activity to violating a traffic law. It is true that driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol can warrant an arrest if a law enforcement officer stops you, but does this necessarily mean that they can search your vehicle too?

In this guide, we’ll answer the question, “When can police search your car for DUI?” and help you understand your constitutional rights regarding police searches. Turn to an experienced DUI attorney in Goodyear if you find yourself in this situation and need legal advice. 

What to Expect When a Police Officer Stops You

If law enforcement even suspect that a traffic law or crime has occurred, they can legally stop your car. However, if challenged, they will need to be able to articulate exactly why they thought it was legally permissible to stop you. They’ll ask for your driver’s license and car registration information and may ask you questions about your driving activity. It’s possible for the officer to issue you a ticket, or they might arrest you based on any evidence of a crime, such as driving with a blood alcohol content above the legal limit.

In some circumstances, an officer asks to search your vehicle. It’s important to know your constitutional rights and what makes for an unlawful search prior to a DUI arrest. Under the U.S. Constitution, you have Fourth Amendment rights that protect you from unreasonable searches and seizures of property, including your motor vehicle.

If an officer asks to search your car and you give your consent, it’s not considered an illegal search. As soon as law enforcement officers receive the consent to search, they can check the vehicle in a lawful search and this does not violate your Fourth Amendment rights. 

Instances When Police Officers Can Search Your Vehicle Without a Search Warrant

Most people think that an officer can’t search their car without a warrant or my consent. A lot of folks think of it in terms of black and white. However, like most areas of the law, there are many grey areas. Warrantless searches can be legal even if you don’t give consent under certain circumstances. So, when can police search your car for DUI without a warrant?

The following circumstances allow a police officer to legally search your vehicle if they don’t have a warrant or your verbal consent.

When They Have Probable Cause

When an officer has probable cause to search, they should have enough evidence to say that based on the totality of the circumstances, criminal activity is probably afoot. What instances give police probable cause to believe your car must be searched? In the case of DUI, an officer could have evidence of a crime if they smell alcohol or marijuana on you. However, many courts have held that the odor of an intoxicant by itself is not enough for probable cause. However, if the officer notices balance issues, bad driving behavior, or bloodshot watery eyes along with the odor, they may have probable cause at that point. Most officers will use field sobriety tests to help them establish probable cause. This is why in DUI investigations, arrests usually come immediately after the field sobriety tests are done.

Another exception to the warrant requirement is plain view. If an officer sees further evidence of a crime in plain view, they could have reasonable suspicion to search your vehicle and may even arrest you depending on what they find. The plain view doctrine comes into play here. This rule states that police officers can search your car and seize any illegal items without a warrant if they see what could be evidence of a crime in plain view in the vehicle (for example, drugs sitting on the seat of the car). You could end up facing a DUI penalty in Arizona because of this evidence.

When They Sense They’re in Danger

Officers can also lawfully conduct vehicle searches for the sole purpose of protecting themselves if they believe you’re endangering them. Many cars end up being searched if police officers at the scene have articulable suspicion that you have a hidden weapon and may use it. In order to conduct a safe search, police will have you and any passengers exit the vehicle and stand a safe distance from the vehicle while they search the vehicle. This is another exception to the warrant requirement under the Fourth Amendment. 

When They Lawfully Arrest You 

Any time a law enforcement officer has probable cause or evidence that you committed a crime like driving under the influence, they can arrest you. If the officer searches your car after the arrest, the Arizona law dictates it’s a legal search incident due to the “automobile exception” that stems from the court case Arizona v. Gant.

When They Impound Your Car

You might be wondering, “How can law enforcement search my car with no warrant? Doesn’t this go against my Fourth Amendment right?” A warrantless search remains lawful after the police arrest you and impound your car. This is referred to as an inventory search, which is different than an investigatory search. 

After police arrest you for driving under the influence, they have the lawful authority to conduct an inventory search of your vehicle. While these searches may produce evidence of a crime, officers are not supposed to be searching for evidence of a crime during an inventory search. An inventory search is supposed to be solely for the purpose of locating items of value before your vehicle is towed, so that the items of value are documented. However, officers can charge you with a crime in addiction to a  DUI if they search your vehicle and find illegal contraband during an inventory search. 

Police Want To Search My Car: What Should I Do?

How can police search your car for DUI suspicion when unreasonable searches violate your rights? When officers stop you and want to conduct a warrantless search, remember to focus on your Fourth Amendment right and tell the police that you do not give them consent to search your vehicle. They may not have probable cause or any evidence in plain sight, which would make the search lawful without a warrant. 

Never assume that officers have the authority to search your vehicle and consent based on that assumption. If the officers have the lawful authority to search your vehicle without your consent, they most likely would not be asking. Simply defer to refusing to consent to a vehicle search and immediately ask to call a lawyer.  

Again, If an officer wants to conduct a warrantless search, you do not need to give verbal consent, and immediately request an attorney. Also, refuse to answer any police questions until you speak with your lawyer. An attorney well-versed in this area can advocate for you and explain whether the vehicle search violates the law based on the following factors:

  • Probable cause
  • Exigent circumstances
  • Visible evidence of driving under the influence

To avoid the potential penalties of a DUI or other crimes, reach out to a knowledgeable attorney immediately following an arrest. Steven George Law is available to take your call 24/7. 

Some Instances of Unlawful Searches

One important question to ask a lawyer is, “Can police search your car for DUI and be unlawful?” This can happen in some instances so it’s wise to work with an attorney who can fight for you in court and file a Motion to Suppress the evidence.

Say that police searched your car without your consent and you believe the search violates your Fourth Amendment rights. Your attorney can file a motion with the court to demonstrate that the vehicle search is, in fact, unlawful in retrospect. A judge can rule that police officers performed an unlawful vehicle search based on the following components.

Unlawful Stop 

Officers need a reasonable articulable suspicion to pull you over. They need a warrant or a warrant exception to search your vehicle. If your rights are violated during the stop, a defense attorney can file a motion to suppress the evidence and a judge could rule in your favor. If the evidence is suppressed, this will essentially gut the prosecution’s case leaving them with nothing to prosecute you with. 

Unlawful Arrest 

As discussed above, officer need probable cause to place a person under arrest for DUI. The odor of alcohol alone does not give rise to probable cause for an arrest. Courts look to the totality of the circumstances to determine whether an office had enough evidence to give rise to probable cause for an arrest. It is illegal for an officer to make an arrest based on merely a hunch. 

No Legal Access to Items in the Car

An officer could uncover marijuana or drug paraphernalia in the glove box. However, they might not have legal access to them. You have a chance of the judge throwing out this evidence if the paraphernalia is not in plain sight or the officer lacks probable cause for the search.

Protect Your Rights with an Experienced DUI Attorney

Now you know more about when an officer has the authority to search your vehicle following a DUI stop. Although, the area of DUI law is vast, and this guide does not cover everything. If you’re stopped for a DUI and aren’t sure if officers infringe on your constitutional rights, turn to a knowledgeable attorney with direct experience with DUI cases. The legal team at Steven George Law, led by Attorney Steven Scharboneau, will advocate for you and help you understand how the judicial system approaches a DUI case.

Reach out to Steven George Law today at (480) 363-0090 to request a free consultation.

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About the Author – Criminal Defense Lawyer in Phoenix, Arizona

Steven Scharboneau is an Arizona attorney practicing criminal defense law and is also a lobbyist with deep roots in the Phoenix Metro area. While he primarily practices in the area of Arizona criminal law, he also practices in other areas where the opportunity to represent the accused presents itself. Beyond the courtroom, Steven advocates for Arizonans impacted by the criminal justice system by working to change Arizona’s criminal laws. Protecting the rights of others from government intrusion is Steven’s passion in life.

This blog is intended to offer explanations of criminal laws and discuss general and basic legal concepts in Arizona. If you have questions or comments specific to a blog entry, feel free to contact me. Nothing on this site is to be construed as legal advice nor to establish an attorney client relationship. If  you would like  more information regarding  your specific situation, you can contact me 24/7 at (480) 363-0090 or through the Contact Me page on this site.