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Police conduct a warrantless car search, drug charges fail

Under the Louisiana Constitution and the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution the right of privacy is established for all persons. The right of privacy often comes up in cases involving drug charges. This usually concerns a search and seizure and the propriety of the police actions under constitutional principles that guarantee privacy rights.

The United States Supreme Court recently decided a case that bolsters the right of privacy in the context of a search of a rented automobile during a traffic stop. It is well-settled that the police must generally obtain a search warrant to search the interior of a vehicle stopped during a traffic stop. There are exceptions to rule, usually involving circumstances where the police obtain probable cause by smelling the odor of marijuana emanating from the vehicle, or where they see contraband in plain sight.

Without such clear-cut evidence, the search of the trunk of a car stopped for a traffic violation would be unconstitutional except upon a formal finding of probable cause and the issuance of a search warrant by a judicial officer. In the subject case, the police made a search of the trunk of the stopped vehicle without having a search warrant and without sufficient evidence of probable cause. They found 49 bricks of heroin.

The defendant filed to have the evidence suppressed and the drug charges dismissed. The police argued that their procedure was proper because the man's name was not on the rental agreement and therefore he did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy to require the police to obtain a warrant. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the defendant still had a reasonable expectation of privacy despite his name not appearing on the rental agreement. The Court reasoned that the man's fiancée had given him permission to drive the vehicle and that was sufficient to establish the privacy expectation. The case now represents the law of all states, including Louisiana.

Source: npr.org, "Supreme Court Upholds Individual Rights In 2 Key Criminal Justice Cases : NPR", Nina Totenberg, May 14, 2018

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