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What you need to know if officers find drugs in your car

Facing drug charges in California is a serious matter. Depending on the type and quantity of drugs the prosecutor claims you possessed, you could face substantial jail or prison time plus stiff fines if you are convicted. That is why it is so important that you contact an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible after your arrest.

Often drug arrests occur because law enforcement officers found drugs in the alleged criminal's car. If this is what led to your arrest, you need to be aware of two legal concepts: vehicular Terry stops and constructive possession.

 

Vehicular Terry stops

Back in 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court in its landmark case of Terry v. Ohio gave law enforcement officers the right to stop and frisk anyone who they reasonably suspect is armed and committing or about to commit a crime. The Court, however, did not extend this right to routine traffic stops. If your drug arrest started out as a traffic stop, it is possible that the officers exceeded their authority and illegally seized both the drugs and you.

The Court further elaborated on what officers can and cannot do during a traffic stop in the subsequent case of Rodriguez v. United States. A routine traffic stop can last only as long as it takes the officers to investigate the alleged traffic violation(s), check to see if there are any outstanding warrants against the driver, and if not, write the appropriate ticket(s).

Officers cannot search your car for drugs or anything else during a traffic stop without your consent unless they see drugs or other contraband plainly visible in your car when they look in your windows. Nor can they detain you while they wait for drug-sniffing dogs or a search warrant. Technically they cannot even ask you questions about drugs or anything else unrelated to the traffic stop, although many officers do so anyhow. While you should never "mouth off" to a law enforcement officer, you do not need to consent to a vehicle search and you can politely refuse to answer any of the officers' questions that are unrelated to the traffic stop itself.

Constructive possession

If officers found alleged drugs in your car as the result of something other than a traffic stop and you had passengers in the car at the time, the prosecutor must prove that the drugs belonged to you, not one of your passengers, in order to convict you. This can get dicey rather quickly even though a legal concept known as constructive possession states that the prosecutor can convict you even if the drugs were not in your pocket or somewhere else on your person when the officers found them. Under certain circumstances, the prosecutor can prove by circumstantial evidence that the drugs were yours.

For instance, if the officers found drugs in the locked console of your car and you had the only key, this is sufficient circumstantial evidence that you "owned" the drugs. Why? Since you had control over their hiding place, you also had control of and therefore constructive possession of the drugs hidden there. This is also assuming the officers conducted a legal and valid search.

If, however, the officers found the drugs in your unlocked console or stuffed between your front seats, there is no way the prosecutor can prove whose drugs they were. Your passengers had just as much access to your unlocked console and/or the space between your front seats as you did. Consequently, there is strong reasonable doubt that you "owned" the drugs and either the prosecutor must drop the charges against you or the jury must acquit you.

Whatever the circumstances of your drug arrest, your best strategy is to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney. (S)he can assess your situation, do the necessary investigation into exactly what the officers did and when and how they did it, and aggressively defend your rights before and during trial, assuming your case actually gets to trial. Depending on all the circumstances, it is possible that (s)he can get your drug charges dismissed.

 

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