Ahhh, another new year. It's a time for keeping (or rather cheating to keep) resolutions to get healthier, smarter, and/or more cultured. It's also a time for buckling down again and getting back to work after the zaniness and hijinks from ringing in 2010. Though sometimes silently letting go of those 2009 indiscretions can be hard since, well you know, our society's pesky laws have an odd tendency to be broken at incredible levels during New Year's celebrations.
Arrests for DUIs, public intoxication, drug possession, and the all-time favorite: disorderly conduct, consistently spike at the beginning of each year. And taking a look at past LegalMatch statistics lends credence to the truth of this trend as the number of cases requesting legal counsel for these types of offenses also increase with every new year.
So what's the point of all this? Well, other than the interesting look into the human psyche that these statistics present (at least interesting to me), it got me thinking about one of the most common questions people ask me: how far reaching is a cop's authority to search and seize?
The simple answer is the police can check you as long as they have probable cause to do so. Probable cause means anything the police officer sees in your possession, vehicle, or even you that would give the cop some indication that you may have something in your possession, knowingly or unknowingly, that is illegal.
Whew. That was a mouthful. It sounds simple enough, and for the most part it is; but as you can probably already see, if the police can search you for anything that makes them suspicious, do they have any limit at all?
Well, to all you U.S. Constitution-carrying Americans out there, the answer is the police have really broad discretion to search you. The Fourth Amendment protects against “unlawful searches and seizures,” but what makes a search unlawful is a lack of probable cause. Similarly what makes a seizure illegal is taking something that isn't illegal or necessary for an investigation (which may or may not be return after said investigation depending on the situation).
The more interesting aspects of police search and seizures come in the form of vehicle checkpoints. You may be surprised to learn that drug checkpoints (i.e. points in the road where police mandatorily stop you to inspect your car for drugs) are illegal. Yes, that's right, the U.S. Supreme Court has rule that they're unconstitutional. Why? Because there is no probable cause.
But what cops can do is stop your vehicle temporarily if they suspect you may have drugs. Conversely however, most courts have upheld sobriety (drunk driving) checkpoints as constitutional. Go figure. But remember: even at a sobriety checkpoint, police must follow proper procedure to arrest a person and actually have it upheld.
As always, the best thing you can do if you're arrested is to get a lawyer. I mean, there's a reason that part is built into your Miranda Rights. Criminal violations are a serious blemish to your record. So don't take them lightly, and as always remember to party safe and with a reverence for the law. Sorry for being a buzz-kill.