Many drug charges arise out of simple traffic stops. For example, a young man will be driving home when a police car flashes its lights and directs him to pull over. The officer steps out of the car and tells the man he ran a stop sign, or perhaps that one of his tail lights is not working. While speaking to the driver, the officer spots drug paraphernalia in the car, searches the vehicle and finds illegal drugs. Ultimately, the young man faces charges for drug possession. If the officer finds more than a small amount of drugs in the car, the man may face serious drug trafficking charges.
It can be hard for a person to successfully defend themselves in the face of such evidence, but it can be done. One of the most powerful strategies is to focus on the search itself. If the defendant can show that the police made an unlawful search, they can get the court to suppress the evidence the police gathered. Without the evidence, the prosecution’s case will likely fall apart.
The Fourth Amendment
The key to this strategy is the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects the people from unreasonable search and seizure. In practice, this means police generally need a warrant before they can search or arrest a person, but there are many exceptions to the warrant requirement.
One common exception applies when a police officer sees evidence of a crime in plain view. For example, in the example we gave earlier in this post, an officer looked through the car window and saw drug paraphernalia. Because the evidence was in plain view, a court would most likely the officer did not need a warrant to search the car.
The question would be more complicated if the evidence was hidden in the car’s trunk or glove compartment. If the evidence is not in plain view, the police need some other exception to the warrant requirement.
Searches of cars
For many years, courts have ruled that the strongest protections against unreasonable searches are in a person’s home, and so police typically must have a warrant before they can search a house or apartment. The rules are somewhat looser when it comes to cars and trucks.
The law is constantly evolving, and courts often reinterpret the meaning of the warrant requirement and unreasonable searches. In recent years, courts have given police a lot of leeway when it comes to searching drivers and passengers and their cars, so long as the police have a reasonable suspicion they might find evidence of a crime.
Because the rules are somewhat loosely defined, police do often step over the line. A criminal defense lawyer may be able to convince the court that the police exceeded their authority and violated the defendant’s constitutional protections against unreasonable search.
These cases are difficult, and require the skill of an experienced lawyer. People who are facing drug charges should speak with a criminal defense lawyer about their options for defending their rights and protecting their freedom.