March 27, 2023

Search warrants needed for most vehicle searches

Washington recently joined the ranks of states that provide individuals with privacy rights broader than what’s afforded to them via the federal constitution. Mike Carter of the Seattle Times reported on the Washington Supreme Court’s landmark opinion in State v. Sapp, in his article “State Supreme Court Imposes Limits on Vehicle Searches.

The 8-1 ruling made on April 5, 2012, overturned convictions in two consolidated cases where police found drugs after stopping the vehicle and performing a search. The decision establishes that police must obtain a search warrant prior to searching a vehicle regardless of what type of relevant evidence they suspect the vehicle may hold.

In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Arizona v. Gant that police must obtain a search warrant before performing a vehicle search, but allowed for two exceptions. First, officers were able to perform a limited search for weapons. Second, police could search a vehicle based on a reasonable belief that it contained evidence related to the crime for which the person had been arrested.

While the Washington state constitution does allow for weapons searches for officer safety, the court held that the constitution’s clause against illegal search and seizure prevented other vehicle searches without the possession of a search warrant.

Opinions on the decision were mixed. On one side, prosecutors argued that the additional time needed for officers to obtain these search warrants would negatively affect the overall functioning of law enforcement agencies. Whisman, a senior deputy prosecutor with the King County Prosecutor’s Office, pointed to the high volume of vehicle searches, stating, “Scores of such arrests occur in any given jurisdiction in any 24-hour period.”

However, the court upheld its belief that the privacy rights of its state’s residents are more important than any inconvenience posed by the search warrant requirement. It noted that a warrantless automobile search to preserve officer safety or prevent destruction or concealment of evidence holds certain urgency, but that a warrantless search based upon a simple belief that evidence existed did not hold the same urgency.

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