Dear John, The other day, I was pulled over for speeding. I was so worried about the cop pulling me over that I did not notice that the bag of marijuana I had hidden under the passenger seat had slid out from under it. Needless to say, the officer arrested me for having the drugs. What I don't get is, doesn't he need a search warrant before he can search my car?
When officers pull someone over, they are normally not allowed to search a vehicle. However, they can look into the car and act upon whatever they find in plain view to them. This is true because the officer had a lawful right to look into your car when he pulled you over for speeding.
One thing that must also be true is that the bag and its contents needed to be immediately apparent as illegal items. Therefore, he would have to show that by his experience and training he knew, just from visual observation, that the stuff inside the bag was marijuana and not something else, such as oregano. This might be difficult for him to prove, but it depends on the situation.
If the officer acts upon the belief that the illegal substance is present, he can then proceed to do a more intensive search of the vehicle. This search is generally limited to the passenger area of the car. It is possible to search the entire car, such as under the hood and in the trunk, but this requires a greater showing that the search was justified.
If it turns out that the officer's use of the plain view search that revealed the original item is not justified, anything found resulting from a more intensive search may be barred from use against you at trial. This is generally referred to as "Fruit From a Poisonous Tree."
John Hartzell is a practicing Walla Walla attorney. No attorney-client relationship is established via this column, which is for educational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice. Any information given is to illustrate basic legal concepts and does not state how any court would decide any matter. Have a question? Ask John at firstname.lastname@example.org.