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Is It Legal for Police to Search My Vehicle in a DUI Arrest?

You may have heard that you have a right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures by the police. But what does this mean?

Police officers cannot stop and search your vehicle without a legal basis for doing so. The general rule is that an officer needs a warrant to validate a search. However, there are many exceptions to that general rule. Those exceptions include:

  • Seizure of items in “plain view” so no search is necessary
  • Consensual searches
  • Searches incident to a valid arrest
  • Officer safety searches

Automobile searches, in particular, have their own unique place when it comes to searches. The law does not protect a person’s right to privacy in their car as much as it does a person’s right to privacy in their home. Most searches of a person’s car start with a traffic stop. These searches are normally called Terry stops, in regard to Supreme Court case, Terry vs Ohio.  

The police are not allowed to stop you for no reason. You must have committed a traffic violation, or they must have reason to believe that you did. However, stops for minor traffic violations are often used as a convenient way for police to stop someone that they suspect may be violating a more serious law. This is possible because police may extend an investigation if they discover additional information in the course of investigating a traffic stop. DUI/OVI investigations often stem from the police pulling someone over for something like speeding or running a red light and continue once the police notice signs of drunk driving, like bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, or the odor of alcohol. Those indicators of drunk driving give the police grounds to continue investigating regardless of the original reason for the stop.

Once an officer is investigating someone for a suspected OVI, they may want to search the vehicle. In these instances, the above-listed exceptions to the warrant requirement may apply.

What is the “Plain View” Doctrine?

This is one of the more common ways that police are able to seize items without a warrant. This doctrine allows police to expand their investigation, possibly including a more thorough search of your vehicle if there are items in plain view that give officers probable cause to believe that a crime has been or is being committed. In the context of a DUI stop, this would most likely be something like an open alcohol container in plain view in your vehicle that an officer sees after pulling you over for a different traffic violation. Depending on the circumstances, items that police see in plain view may be sufficient evidence for them to fully search your vehicle without a warrant.

What Are Consensual Searches?

If you give your consent to search voluntarily and intelligently, the police can search your vehicle without a warrant. However, this does not mean the police are allowed to search a car just because of the driver consents. The officer still has to have a valid basis to ask for the search, and the search must be related to the purpose of the stop or evidence observed during the stop. You are always free to decline to allow the police to search your car, and under Ohio law, the search may be considered invalid if the police did not inform you of your right to refuse. Even if you do tell police they can search your vehicle, it may be considered involuntary, and therefore illegal, depending on the circumstances surrounding the stop and detention (for example, if you did not feel that you were free to leave, your agreement to a search may be considered involuntary).

What Are Searches Incident To Arrests?

If you are lawfully arrested on suspicion of drunk driving, the police may legally search your person and your vehicle to take inventory of evidence and your belongings.

What Are Officer Safety Searches?

An officer may have legal grounds to perform a pat down of your person and possibly a limited search of your vehicle if they have a reasonable belief that you or anyone else in the car may pose a danger to the police. This is not often going to be the case during a typical DUI stop, but may be relevant if the officer believes you could have a weapon, or may otherwise be dangerous.

What About Searches Of Purses Or Bags Inside My Vehicle?

A police officer may be able to search bags or purses inside a car based on the same exceptions that they can use to search the car without a warrant. For example, if you have an open container of alcohol in your purse where an officer can see it, he may be able to search the entire bag because of the “plain view” doctrine. Police may also ask for your consent to search a bag or purse in your car. However, it’s important to know that consent to search from the driver or owner of the vehicle does not extend to searching the bags or purses that belong to passengers in the car.

What About DUI Checkpoints?

There are certain guidelines that the police must follow when setting up a legally authorized checkpoint. These include things like:

  • The location must have a history of drunk driving or alcohol-related incidents
  • The logistics of the checkpoint must be documented
  • Residents must be notified of the checkpoint in advance
  • Stops must be uniform and random

Checkpoints differ from typical traffic stops because police are allowed to stop cars without any “individualized suspicion” that a certain driver or passenger has violated any law. Officers are allowed to ask questions of drivers and may conduct consensual searches without any reason to believe that a crime has been committed. You are not required to answer police questions or give consent for a vehicle search at a checkpoint.

In order to detain a vehicle and its occupants for extended investigation, the police must establish individualized suspicion based on articulable facts. In other words, you can’t be detained based on a “hunch.” Once an officer does have reasonable suspicion, the stop will proceed the same way that a normal traffic stop would, and the above-discussed exceptions to the warrant requirement also apply.

Your Miranda rights

Remember that the police do not have to advise you of your rights until you are taken into custody (usually via arrest) and you are being interrogated. You still have those rights before you are arrested, however, meaning you have the right to remain silent even during initial questioning. While it is best to be polite and respectful while talking to police officers, you do not have to disclose incriminating information related to whether you have been drinking or any similar information.

Whether or not the police had a right to search your vehicle during a DUI/OVI stop, regardless of if the stop was initiated based on a traffic violation or via a checkpoint, greatly depends on the facts of your individual case. Call us today to speak to an experienced DUI attorney and discuss your options.