Motor vehicle searches in Rhode Island
The U.S. Constitution guarantees that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
This protection comes from the Fourth Amendment, which the founding fathers of our country included to protect us from government intrusions into our homes and personal belongings. At the time that the Constitution was drafted, the British government often issued “general warrants,” which did not require any cause for British Soldier to search colonists’ homes. The Fourth Amendment was adopted to protect us from such generalized searches.
Rhode Island Constitution
Each state has its own constitution, with language that mirrors the U.S. Constitution. For example, the Rhode Island Constitution provides protections from unreasonable searches in Article I, Section 6.
It explicitly provides that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, papers and possessions, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated; and no warrant shall issue, but on complaint in writing, upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and describing as nearly as may be, the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized.”
Massachusetts, Article XIV of the Declaration of Rights
Similarly, in Massachusetts, Article XIV of the Declaration of Rights provides that “every subject has a right to be secure from all unreasonable searches, and seizures, of his person, his houses, his papers, and all his possessions.” Massachusetts also has a warrant requirement to conduct said searches and seizure.
In addition to these state-specific constitutional protections, the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment specifically applies to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment.
Although the language of the Fourth Amendment does not specifically say that police need a warrant to conduct a search, the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted “unreasonable searches” to mean just that – police need a warrant to conduct a search. This general rule requiring a warrant to search is subject to many exceptions, which are not listed here. The automobile exception, however, is an often used search requiring no warrant.
Qualify as a “search” under the Fourth Amendment
To qualify as a “search” under the Fourth Amendment, two requirements must be met:
- (1) the conduct must be by a law enforcement officer or a private person acting at the direction of a police officer, and
- (2) the actor must intrude into an area where a reasonable expectation of privacy exists.
The expectation of privacy must be one held by the individual subject to the search and be accepted as reasonable by the courts. Examples of places where there a reasonable expectation of privacy exists include homes, hotel rooms, automobiles, closed and locked containers, and certain public places like restrooms or phone booths, and more.
In regard to motor vehicles, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that police may search a car without a warrant as long as police have probable cause to believe the vehicle contains evidence of a crime or contraband. This is due to the fact that cars are mobile, and therefore, have the capability or moving away and disappearing, both from the scene and even the jurisdiction before a search warrant may be obtained.
Similarly, cars are highly regulated because they travel public roads with occupants and contents in plain view, all of which dilute any reasonable expectation of privacy. If the police have probable cause to search a vehicle, they may search anywhere inside the vehicle where evidence of the crime may exist. This includes the passenger compartment, trunk, glove compartment, under the hood, and any containers, whether locked or not, inside the vehicle. This is “the automobile exception” to the warrant requirement. If no “probable cause” to believe evidence of a crime is in the car, however, the police may not search areas of the car not within plain view, unless they fear for their lives and have cause to believe the driver or a passenger may obtain a weapon from the place searched to be used against them.
For example, a driver could reach into the console next to his seat for a weapon, but not easily reach into the truck for a gun.
Facing criminal charges?
If you are facing criminal charges as the result of evidence seized following a motor vehicle stop or search of your vehicle, call the Rhode Island Motor Vehicle Defense Lawyers at the Law Office of John L. Calcagni III, Inc. today at (401) 351-5100 for a free consultation. We have a proven track record, spanning more than a decade, of fighting unconstitutional searches and seizures with motions suppress. Let us help you!