The courts in Texas and around the country take the public’s right to privacy seriously, and evidence gathered during searches that are deemed to have violated the Fourth Amendment cannot be used in court. Police officers are usually required to obtain a warrant or consent before conducting a search, but exceptions are made when there are exigent circumstances and time is of the essence. Police officers are also allowed to act without permission or a judge’s approval when they have probable cause or reasonably fear for their safety.
Plain view and probable cause
Police officers may conduct warrantless vehicle searches when they observe something that gives them probable cause. This is evidence that would lead a reasonable person to conclude that a crime has been committed, is being committed or will be committed. This often happens when officers see signs of criminal behavior, such as drug paraphernalia or an open container of alcohol, in plain view.
The evidence that provides probable cause does not have to be visual; courts have admitted evidence discovered in vehicle searches triggered by the odor of drugs or the sounds made by people calling for help. In addition to providing probable cause, cries of distress would allow police to search a vehicle based on the exigent circumstances exception.
Reasonable suspicion and Terry stops
Police officers have reasonable suspicion when they observe something that would lead a reasonable person to suspect criminal activity. It is not usually enough to justify an arrest or warrantless search, but the Supreme Court carved out an exception to this general rule in the landmark 1968 case Terry vs. Ohio. After hearing arguments, the justices ruled that police officers may frisk a suspect for weapons when they have reason to believe the person is armed. The case involved a police encounter with a pedestrian, but the ruling also covers traffic stops.
Motorists often consent to searches of their vehicles because they feel that they have nothing to hide and think that refusing could make them appear guilty. An experienced criminal defense attorney may advise against this as consenting to a search waives rights protected by the Fourth Amendment and renders arguments over reasonable suspicion and probable cause moot.