Understanding DWI Police Searches
The Fourth Amendment is the constitutional provision that places basic restrictions on all police searches. It prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures by the police. To be considered a “search” under the Fourth Amendment, there must be an expectation by a defendant of privacy in the area that is searched by authorities. Items found by the police in plain view or which are abandoned by a defendant are not considered products of a police search. If a defendant, such as a DWI defendant, has a legitimate expectation of privacy in an area, they will have reason to challenge a police search.
DWI Vehicle Searches
Police officers may search a vehicle without a warrant if they have probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains evidence or contraband. This often occurs in DWAI Drugs cases where police officers may search for illegal drugs in the cars of suspects. An officer may search anywhere in a vehicle that a warrant could have authorized under this rule.
This rule is based on the fact that there is less expectation for privacy in a vehicle traveling on public roads and also on the ready mobility of vehicles. Where small objects, such as a stash of illegal drugs, are the objects of a probable cause search, police officers may search handbags and other personal effects found in a car without a warrant, regardless of whether the personal effects are claimed by the driver or passengers in the car. It is important for DWI defendants to note that if an officer has probable cause to suspect that drugs are in a car, the officer can search every area of the car that may conceal the drugs without a warrant.
Incident to Arrest Searches and DWI
The laws regarding search and seizure apply in DWI cases where a police officer is looking for the type of evidence that will be relied upon by the State to prosecute the case. In some DWI cases, an officer will conduct a routine traffic stop, arrest the suspect for DWI, conduct a search of the vehicle, and find a bottle of alcohol or other evidence. Under the law, once a person is arrested for DWI, the officer is in a position to search the car because this constitutes a search incident to arrest.
In Arizona v. Gant, the United States Supreme Court clarified the search-incident-to-arrest exception that applies to vehicles. The Court stated in the Gant case that there are two circumstances under which a search-incident-to-arrest is permissible: (1) a police officer may search a vehicle incident to a driver’s arrest when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search, and (2) a police officer may search a vehicle when it is reasonable to believe evidence relevant to the crime of arrest might be found in the vehicle. Basically, the officer is allowed to get into both the driver’s side and passenger’s side of the car to look for and seize evidence after they have arrested a suspect for DWI.
DWI Searches at Sobriety Checkpoints
During a typical stop at a sobriety checkpoint, police officers will inspect drivers as well as the interior of cars for signs of the driver’s intoxication. The detention of a driver at a sobriety checkpoint constitutes the “seizure” of a person for Fourth Amendment purposes. New York courts have addressed the constitutionality of sobriety checkpoints in the case of People v. Scott. The New York Court of Appeals in this case held that a sobriety checkpoint was constitutional since it was temporary in nature and had a high deterrent effect. The constitutionality of sobriety checkpoints has also been upheld in some states where the police in the area know that certain crimes (such as DWI offenses) have occurred there before and thus have probable cause to believe these crimes will be committed there again.
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