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Probable cause and warrantless searches

You may know that there are limited circumstances for which New Mexico police may search you or your vehicle without a warrant. In fact, in some cases, a search without a warrant may be a violation of your civil rights. However, police may also be able to convince a court that, even without a warrant, they had probable cause to conduct the search.

What is probable cause? It is a powerful concept that gives law enforcement the authority to act in ways that would otherwise be unconstitutional. If police recently arrested you based on incriminating evidence they found after a warrantless search of your vehicle, probable cause will be the element your attorney will likely focus on.

When can police search your vehicle?

To begin with, police must have a reasonable suspicion that you are involved in criminal activity. For example, if your car veered over the center line, this may give police a reasonable suspicion that you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and they may stop your vehicle to investigate. Police may rightfully detain you at this time, question you and perhaps hold you while waiting for a warrant to search your vehicle. However, they may not need a warrant in the following situations:

  • You have an open alcohol container, drugs, a weapon or other contraband in plain sight in your vehicle.
  • Police believe the situation is an emergency and quick action is required, such as if they suspect the driver has an explosive device in the vehicle.
  • Police suspect that delaying the search will result in the destruction of evidence.
  • If you consent to a police search, officers do not need a warrant.

Allowing police to search your car is seldom a wise idea. You may not be aware of everything that is in your vehicle, such as if a friend hid or left behind drugs or a weapon. If police find these items, you may face serious charges.

After your arrest

After officers pull you over under suspicion of DUI or for another traffic offense, they may have probable cause to arrest you. This may include a failed breath test, failed roadside sobriety tests, your unsteady behavior or your admission that you have been drinking. At this time, police will certainly have probable cause to search you, although they may still need a warrant to search your vehicle.

If police arrest you or search you, your vehicle, or your home without a warrant, they must be able to prove to the court that probable cause existed. You would be wise to seek skilled legal counsel who can challenge law enforcement's claims and build a solid defense against the ensuing charges. 

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McGraw & Strickland, LLC
165 West Lucero Ave.
Las Cruces, NM 88005

Phone: 575-567-3107
Fax: 575-680-1200
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