Can Police Search Your Vehicle After a DUI Arrest in Charleston?

DUI stops are common in Charleston, so you need to know your rights. If an officer stops you and suspects you’re under the influence, they will likely ask you to pull over for field sobriety tests. Refusing these tests may lead to a DUI arrest, but agreeing doesn’t give police free rein to search your vehicle.

Here a Charleston DUI lawyer explains what you need to know about when police can search your car.

Police Need Probable Cause to Search Your Car

Under the 4th Amendment, police need probable cause to search your vehicle without consent. Signs of intoxication like slurred speech or the odor of alcohol alone don’t constitute probable cause for a search. However, if an officer spots open containers of alcohol, drugs, or other contraband in plain view, that gives them cause to search the rest of the vehicle.

If you’re arrested after failing field sobriety tests, the police can inventory the vehicle’s contents, but that’s not the same as a full search. They can list items in plain view but can’t open closed containers or the trunk without cause. Once the vehicle is impounded, though, police need a warrant to search it further.

What Is Probable Cause for a Search in a DUI Arrest?

So the police pulled you over on suspicion of drunk driving in Charleston and now want to search your vehicle. Do they have the right to do that? The short answer is: it depends. For police to legally search your vehicle without a warrant, they need probable cause.

This means they need reasonable evidence that suggests a search will turn up evidence of a crime. Things like:

  • The officer smells alcohol on your breath or notices signs of impairment like slurred speech or difficulty walking.
  • There are open alcohol containers visible in the vehicle.
  • You admit to drinking recently.
  • You refuse a breathalyzer test. While you have the right to refuse, it may provide probable cause.

Mere suspicion alone is not enough. The officer must be able to articulate clear reasons that would lead a reasonable person to believe evidence of drunk driving will be found. Things like swerving in traffic or driving late at night are not enough on their own.

If probable cause exists, the search must be limited to places where evidence of the suspected crime – in this case, drunk driving – could reasonably be found. So while the officer can search places like the passenger compartment, glove box, center console, and trunk, a more extensive search of the entire vehicle would typically require a warrant.

police need probable cause or permission to search your car  during a DUI stop

Areas Police Can Search Without a Warrant During a DUI Arrest

After being arrested for DUI in Charleston, the police have the authority to search certain areas of your vehicle without obtaining a search warrant.

The Passenger Compartment

The police can search the interior of your vehicle, known as the passenger compartment. This includes searching under seats, in the glove box, center console, door pockets, and any other storage areas inside the vehicle. They are looking for additional evidence related to your impairment, like open alcohol containers, drugs, or related paraphernalia.

Your Personal Belongings

Any bags, purses, backpacks, or other containers you have inside the vehicle are also subject to search following a DUI arrest. The police can search through your personal belongings in these items for the same reasons as searching the passenger compartment.

The Trunk

The trunk of your vehicle can typically only be searched without a warrant if:

  • It’s unlocked and accessible from inside the passenger compartment. The police can then search the trunk for the same reasons as the rest of the vehicle.
  • They have probable cause to believe evidence of your DUI will be found in the trunk. For example, if they smell marijuana coming from the trunk or see open containers in there.
  • You consent to a search of the trunk. However, you are within your rights to refuse consent to search the trunk. Without probable cause or exigent circumstances, the police will need a search warrant to search a locked trunk.

Working With a Charleston DUI Defense Attorney

Working with an experienced DUI defense attorney in Charleston is critical after an arrest. They can evaluate the details of your case and build a strong defense to try and get the charges reduced or dropped.

Your attorney will walk you through all your legal options and the potential outcomes so you can make an informed decision on how to proceed with your case. Their goal is to get you the best possible resolution, whether that is reduced charges or even a dismissal of the DUI.

Don’t go through this difficult process alone. Contact a Charleston DUI attorney today for a free case review and to get started building your defense. Call us now at (843) 277-8711.