Know the Law – Vehicle Searches

The Michigan Supreme Court recently decided that passengers have the right to challenge a search of belongings when a vehicle’s driver is pulled over. Tom Sinas, Grand Rapids auto accident attorney from Sinas Dramis Law firm explains when a law officer can and cannot search a passenger’s belongings.

4th Amendment Basics

The fourth amendment protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures and applies to areas known as an “expectation of privacy,” such as a person’s home. However, vehicles fall somewhere in the middle. Typically, law enforcement needs a warrant to search these areas of expected privacy. The general rule is that law enforcement can search a car without a warrant, but there has to be probable cause. People can also give consent to law enforcement to conduct a search. However, a passenger in the vehicle may still hold some rights to expected privacy when in the car with the driver.

Example of Passengers Involved in Vehicle Searches

In this example, a driver and passenger were pulled over by local law enforcement. The driver gave the police officer consent to search the vehicle. However, the passenger had a backpack in the back seat of the driver’s vehicle. The issues here is whether or not the passenger had a reasonable expectation of privacy with regard to their backpack. The Michigan Supreme Court ultimately decided yes. The officer had consent from the driver to search the vehicle, but did not have consent from the passenger to search their backpack. However, if the officer has probable cause, then they are still allowed to search the backpack.

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