Can police open my car door during a traffic stop?
In McHam v. State, a case of first impression, the South Carolina Supreme Court was asked to decide whether an officer may open a car door during a valid traffic stop without violating the 4th Amendment against unreasonable search and seizures. What we do know is that an officer making a traffic stop may order passengers to get out of the car pending completion of the stop “because the danger to an officer from a traffic stop is likely to be greater when there are passengers in addition to the driver in the stopped car. Pennsylvania v. Mimms, (1977). However, an officer opening the car door is different and triggers a Fourth Amendment analysis.
What happened here
McHam approached a traffic safety checkpoint with one passenger in the front seat. Three officers were present in marked cruisers. A Trooper approached and asked for license, registration, and proof of insurance. McHam provided his license but he and his passenger began looking in various places for the registration and insurance. The trooper could not see their hands so he opened the passenger side door and immediately saw a baggie of crack cocaine between the seat and passenger side door. A search of the vehicle resulted in police finding cocaine, and cash. McHam was charged with trafficking cocaine and at trial was convicted and sentenced to 25 years.
Officer safety can be a valid justification for opening the door of an occupied vehicle if: (1) whether the act constituted a search; and (2) whether any search was nevertheless justified under the 4th Amendment.
First – the good news
As to the first point, police opening a door of an occupied vehicle is a search. “Even a small intrusion” can be an unlawful search under the 4th Amendment. Arizona v. Hicks, (1987). Even an officers act of sticking his head in a slightly ajar sliding door of a windowless cargo van is a search. See Commonwealth v. Podgurski.
Second – the bad news (sort of)
Is the search justified by an exception to the warrant requirement? If the conduct is a search then we analyze if it was justified. Warrantless searches and seizures are unreasonable absent a recognized exception to the warrant requirement. State v. Wright. These exceptions include:
- Search incident to a lawful arrest;
- Hot pursuit;
- Stop and frisk;
- Automobile exception;
- Plain view doctrine;
- Consent; and
See State v. Dupree.
In addition to the above listed exceptions Officer safety has been recognized as a substantial basis as well. See Mimms, observing the governmental interest in officer safety during a traffic stop is substantial. In this case the court found that “officer safety” was a legitimate basis because it was in a dimly lit area, the presence of more than one occupant in the vehicle, and there was only one officer approaching the vehicle at the time. Therefore the search was lawful and the drugs were admissible evidence.
What’s interesting about this case and the decision are the facts. The “dimly lit” area the court noted as a concern was selected by police, after all it was “their safety checkpoint” which in turn meant there were numerous other police vehicles and officers within a stones throw of McHam’s vehicle, clearly outnumbering McHam and his passenger. So, was there really any danger to the officer’s on scene? Somehow the court found there was to justify the search.
Criminal defense attorney Charleston, SC
If you have been arrested and the police found evidence of a crime because of an illegal search call an experienced and trusted Charleston Criminal Defense Lawyer at the Dale Savage Law Firm, today 843-530-7813
7 thoughts on “Can Police Open My Car Door?”
Tonight after driving my friend to her house we decided to sit outside the house and my car for a little while and chat before she went in. Because it was a little chilly out the windows started to fog up quickly. It was on a public street at night but located right under the street light. Nothing illegal was happening. A cop car passed us a couple of times without any problems so we continued our conversation. The third time they came by they pull up next to us and exited their marked car. As I went to roll down my window they opened my car door. I was in stock and became scared and defensive. The officer stated that they drove past us a couple times and saw us sitting here so he wanted to make sure we were “okay”! They then left after seeing nothing illegal was happening. Can they open my door without my consent???
No they cannot at least not without a warrant or consent as it is considered a search. How to deal with the issue is that if the police found any evidence of a crime it would be suppressed against you but in this case b/c there was not any crime or evidence recovered so there is nothing to suppress, just getting hassled by the cops.
my rule for the police is do whatever they say and if you are lucky to live then deal with them later in court but back talking is just not allowed black people.
I got pulled over for speeding and a ticket for speeding but the office came to my passenger door and opened it, if this is not ok for him to do, do I tell the judge in court?
Unfortunately the opening of a car, even if unlawful, will not change your speeding ticket issue. I would make sure you request proof of the speeding infraction such as radar information or any other source they are relying on as evidence in that case. The door opening issue would only effect your case if they recovered some evidence of a crime as a result of opening your door and then it may be inadmissible against you.
So hey Trenton. I was dropping a girl I had just went on a date with off at the library where she had parked. It was around 1st, She drove off and I was fixing to when a cop pulled up behind me. I rolled my window down about 3 inches ready to give my registration and license over. Without a word he jerks my driver side door open and tells me to get out. I asked if it was necessary and he replied with a yes. So I get out and he grabs my knife which was clipped to my pocket, (switchblade) oops, asked if I had any other weapons I told him I didnt. He patted me down and finally asked for my license and registration. I gave it to him and set in my car with my door open. After 30 mins he and his partner had me come over and sign my tickets. Unlawful carry and parking on the premise after dark. I just want to know if he had the right to open my door??
Depending on what state you are in and the laws of that state will apply. In SC no they cannot open your car door without a warrant unless there is some other exigent circumstance. Police can lawfully order you out of your vehicle and if you fail to comply then they may be able to forcefully remove you. The remedy for such violations would be suppression of any evidence in violation of the unconstitutional search. You need to talk to a criminal defense lawyer the state you are in and discuss the facts more fully to know what options you may have.
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