Federal Crimes Blog

What Are the Rules on Searching Cars in a Federal Case?

Posted by Hedding Law Firm | Aug 16, 2022

This issue comes up all the time where someone's car is being searched, and then the police or agents find something illegal, and then they're charged at the federal level, and that person is saying, I don't understand how or why the police/feds can search my car.

What Are the Rules on Searching Cars in a Federal Case?

A lot of times, what I see is that it's not the feds that are searching the car.  The feds are investigating it or brought into the investigation post-search.

So, now, the person said the police illegally stopped me, or the police illegally searched me, and I don't think the federal government should be able to use that evidence against me.

So, the rules as they relate to searches of cars at the federal level — and the reason I say at the federal level is that if you're charged with a federal case, you're entitled to challenge that search and argue that it was, in fact, an illegal search.

And this can be done by way of a motion in front of a federal judge arguing that a search of the car was illegal and the authorities violated your rights.  It doesn't matter whether those authorities are, in fact, federal agents.

They can even be state police searching your car, but you're being charged with a federal case. I've had a bunch of cases where the state police find vast quantities of drugs after a search, and I end up filing a motion on behalf of my client to challenge the search, or maybe other illegal items are found.

This could include credit card fraud or credit cards in other people's names being found or drugs or a combination of drugs, credit cards, or guns.

There's a whole list of things that can be found during a search, and then you end up getting charged at the federal level for whatever reason, and now you need to try to challenge the search. Our Federal criminal defense lawyers will review further below.

What Are the Federal Criminal Search and Seizure Laws?

Under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, all citizens have a right to be protected from unlawful searches and seizures of their persons, houses, papers, and effects.

Federal Criminal Search and Seizure Laws

However, if there is sufficient “probable cause,” law enforcement may be able to search and seize items without a warrant. United States Supreme Court has described the probable cause as a “fair probability evidence of a crime will be found in a particular place.”

When a federal law enforcement agency, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), has a valid reason to believe you are involved in criminal conduct, it can pursue a warrant to search your property.  To get a federal warrant, however, they have to:

  • present a written affidavit to a magistrate,
  • lists all the reasons they believe you committed a crime, and
  • why do they believe the evidence of this can be found on your property.

While federal laws allow agents a right to search, there are limitations. The federal criminal justice system is complex, and you need to ensure your constitutional rights are protected. It's essential to understand the exceptions to the rule, especially in vehicle searches.

What Are the Exceptions to the Warrant Requirement?

The exceptions will vary based on the type of property law enforcement is attempting to search or seize. For instance, the exceptions covering cell phones differ from those for bags or purses. However, the exceptions to a warrant include:

  • If the police have consent to search the property or vehicle;
  • If someone is lawfully arrested and the police are seeking a weapon that can be used against them or is evidence in a crime and could be destroyed;
  • Searches that occur at international borders;
  • Vehicle searches when police have probable cause to believe the vehicle contains pertinent evidence;
  • Any Items that are in plain view of police and are incriminating;
  • Emergencies where searches or seizures are necessary to prevent physical harm or property damage or to find a suspect who fled;
  • Terry stops, which is a stop and frisk when a suspect is temporarily detained, and police are looking for weapons that may be used against them;
  • Situations where someone has no reasonable probability of privacy.

Did federal officials overstep their legal authority with a warrantless search? If federal law enforcement officials searched for your person or property without a warrant, they might not have had the right to do it.

This means it might be possible to challenge the legality of a search and seizure of property or a person, but a lawyer must first establish sufficient legal grounds for such a claim.

Can You Challenge the Vehicle Search?

Possibly. We have you come in, sit down, and we go over the facts and details.  Hopefully, there's video evidence of what happened from the police officer's vehicle or bodycam that we can try to use to help challenge the search and then compare that with the police report.

Challenge the Vehicle Search in Federal Cases

You'll be surprised how the bodycam evidence of police officers can sometimes differ significantly from their actual police report. You would think they would review the bodycam and ensure that whatever they put in the police report matched it.

Still, for whatever reason, sometimes they're too lazy or not sophisticated enough to do that, and that can be ripe for a federal challenge to a search conducted by either the feds or the state police.

So, if you've got a federal case and you're looking to challenge the search for a vehicle, you've come to the right place.  There are all sorts of rules related to that, usually controlled by the Supreme Court, coming up with cases and then using those cases to set the law of the land regarding searches of vehicles.

I encourage you to pick up the phone.  Ask for a meeting with Ron Hedding, either over the phone or in person.

We can talk about the search, and we can talk about what you can do to defend yourself in your federal criminal case best. The Hedding Law Firm provides a free case review via phone or contact form.

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