In Louisiana, there are many ways in which an officer can legally search your vehicle without a warrant:
- Your consent: Unless other reasons outlined below apply, an officer must have your voluntary consent to search the vehicle. You have the right to refuse an officer from searching your car. Keep in mind, unlocking the doors or opening the car's trunk for an officer could represent your consent for a search.
- Probable cause: If an officer has probable cause to believe a crime has been committed and there could be evidence of that crime in your vehicle, they could be within their rights to search your car. However, they may only search the area of the car they believe might contain evidence. They cannot conduct a comprehensive search.
- Plain view doctrine: If you are pulled over for a traffic violation, and an officer can visibly see drugs and/or contraband in your vehicle, then the officer generally will have legal authority to search your vehicle without a warrant or consent under probable cause.
- Plain smell doctrine: If you are pulled over and an officer can smell drugs or alcohol emanating from your vehicle, they may have the authority to search your vehicle without a warrant or consent under probable cause.
- Reasonable suspicion: Though officers are supposed to have probable cause to search your car, there have been instances in Louisiana in which an officer was found within their rights when searching a vehicle under reasonable suspicion. An example of this could be if an officer believed himself to be in danger.
- Arrest: If you are arrested, an officer can generally search your car in relation to the arrest.
- Impound: If an officer has your car towed and impounded for a legitimate reason, they may search your vehicle under an inventory search. When an officer does an inventory search, they write a comprehensive list of the vehicle's contents, which is meant to protect them from liability of lost or stolen property as a result of the impound. An inventory search is also meant to protect your belongings. It is illegal for an officer to impound your car for the sole purpose of searching it.
This list is not comprehensive to every situation. Vehicle search laws contain a lot of murky loopholes, so they can be confusing and difficult to navigate when trying to understand your rights under the law.
If you believe your car was illegally searched by an officer and your rights have been violated, contact a criminal defense attorney. You could have a viable case to keep evidence obtained in a search from being used against you. At Martzell, Bickford & Centola, we offer free consultations, so call us at (504) 581-9065 or fill out our online form to discuss your options.