What Truck Drivers Need To Know About Illegal Search and Seizure

Two border patrol agents look out onto the highway for passing trucks.

Truck drivers know all about having to submit to inspection of their freight, whether it’s at a weigh station, border patrol checkpoint, or in some cases, even being pulled over under suspicion of committing a crime. But when can the police search your truck? And when is the police conducting a search considered an illegal search and seizure?

Javier Guzman is a trusted criminal federal attorney in Laredo and he is here to talk to you about everything truck drivers need to know about the illegal search and seizure laws in Texas so that you can keep your rights protected and your tires on the highway. 

If you or a loved one has been a victim of illegal search and seizure in Texas, call Guzman Law Firm today at (956) 516-7198. Javier can be your advocate during these trying times and can help make sure your rights are protected in the face of unlawful search and aggressive prosecution.

What is an unlawful search and seizure?

What is considered an unreasonable search? The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution safeguards truck drivers from unreasonable searches and seizures by law enforcement. It does not guarantee against all searches and seizures, just those that are considered to be unreasonable under the law. 

The best way to talk about the Fourth Amendment, and its limitations, is to look at a few important Supreme Court decisions over the years. While more decisions pertain to unlawful search and seizure, the following cases illustrate some important points:

  • Arizona v. Gant, 129 S. Ct. 1710 (2009) states that “where there is probable cause to believe that a vehicle contains evidence of a criminal activity, an officer may lawfully search any area of the vehicle in which the evidence might be found.”
  • United States v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266 (2002) states that “an officer may conduct a traffic stop if he has reasonable suspicion that a traffic violation has occurred or that criminal activity is afoot.”
  • Arizona v. Johnson, 555 U.S. 323 (2009) states that “an officer may conduct a pat-down of the driver and passengers during a lawful traffic stop; the police need not believe that any occupant of the vehicle is involved in a criminal activity.”
  • Illinois v. Cabales, 543 U.S. 405 (2005) states that “the use of a narcotics detection dog to walk around the exterior of a car subject to a valid traffic stop does not require reasonable, explainable suspicion.”
  • United States v. Montoya de Hernandez, 473 U.S. 531 (1985) states that “an officer at an international border may conduct routine stops and searches.”

These decisions are somewhat self-explanatory, but we should define two terms that are vital to the concept of illegal search:

  1. Reasonable suspicion references common-sense conclusions about human behavior that would cause an officer to believe that a crime is being committed. Reasonable suspicion must be more than an “unarticulated hunch” and it must contain “specific reasonable inferences.”
  2. Probable cause can be thought of as the step after reasonable suspicion. If an officer must have reasonable suspicion to stop your vehicle, they must then have probable cause to search your vehicle. Probable cause is evidence that any reasonable person would believe that a crime was in the process of being committed, had been committed, or was going to be committed.

Like a lot of language used by state and federal courts, these definitions are broad. This is mostly to make it easier to arrest people who are suspected of crimes and make sure that the law enforcement officers who do so do not face excessive penalties for making these arrests. 

What happens if the 4th Amendment is violated?

When the Fourth Amendment is violated, the evidence obtained during an illegal search and seizure may be deemed inadmissible in court. This exclusionary rule is designed to deter law enforcement officers from violating the constitutional rights of individuals during traffic stops. 

If a truck driver’s Fourth Amendment rights are violated, it can significantly impact any legal proceedings that follow, including but not limited to undermining criminal charges or regulatory actions related to professional licenses.

Additionally, violations of the Fourth Amendment can lead to civil lawsuits against the law enforcement officers and agencies involved. Truck drivers who believe their rights have been violated may pursue legal action to seek compensation for damages resulting from the illegal search and seizure after their criminal cases have concluded.

What is required to justify a warrantless search and seizure?

Wondering when search and seizure may be made without a warrant? There are a few circumstances under which law enforcement officers may search your truck without waiting to obtain a warrant. 

  1. Consent. First and foremost, if you consent to a search of your vehicle — which you should never do — the police will be able to legally search it. 
  2. Probable cause. If law enforcement officers have probable cause to believe a crime is being committed they may be able to search your truck legally. The tricky thing about probable cause is that you likely won’t know whether it is sufficient (i.e. legal) until the court decides on it. Your lawyer will be able to tell you more about whether or not an officer may have had probable cause. 
  3. Exigent circumstances. Although these generally apply to searches of homes and domiciles, exigent circumstances allow officers to conduct searches without warrants. Some common forms of exigent circumstances include:
    1. Protection of life (generally a child or an undercover officer is involved)
    2. Protection of property
    3. Preventing the destruction of evidence
    4. Preventing the fleeing of a felon

So, if a law enforcement officer suspects that you are harboring illegal immigrants or trafficking drugs, it does not mean that they have the right to search your vehicle, but if they have evidence to believe that you are committing one of these offenses, then they likely can search your vehicle legally.

Continue reading: What is the difference between smuggling and trafficking?

Examples of illegal search and seizure

Although every case is different, illegal search and seizure cases often involve similar elements, which can include:

  1. Random stops and searches. If an officer does not have reasonable suspicion or probable cause to suspect a crime and conducts a search anyway, it may be illegal. These cases often involve profiling based on appearance and profession.
  2. Trouble with search consent. Officers will often try to get drivers to consent to searches of their vehicles without explaining that consent is voluntary. If you felt that you expressed consent under duress the search of your vehicle may have been unlawful.
  3. Extended detention. It is unlawful to detain a driver for an extended period of time while waiting for a warrant (or for probable cause for a search) to appear. 

Because border patrol is trying to prevent the smuggling of persons, and as stated in United States v. Montoya de Hernandez, officers at international borders may conduct routine stops and searches. This means that there are many scenarios in which the police have every right to search your truck. 

If your truck was searched legally and you were then accused of committing a crime, this does not represent the end of the road. Remember: a charge is not a conviction. You can hire an experienced attorney to take your case and protect your freedom and your livelihood. 

Can a lawyer help with illegal search and seizure? Guzman Law Firm can.

Hiring a skilled and experienced criminal lawyer is the best thing that you can do to protect yourself after being a victim of illegal search and seizure. Your attorney can help ensure that any evidence obtained illegally by law enforcement is not used to convict you of a crime in a court of law. Additionally, if you suffered damages because of this illegal search and seizure, hiring a lawyer can help you get back what you’ve lost. 

Whether you’re facing human smuggling charges or are wondering how you can fight a DWI with a CDL, Javier Guzman can help. Javier is a trusted federal lawyer in Laredo who can help defend your life and keep your truck on the road.

Call Guzman Law Firm today at (956) 516-7198 or contact us online to request a consultation and take the first step in building your defense. 

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