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Police Officers’ Authority to Arrest When Drugs Are Found in a Car

You’re riding around with your friends in downtown Jacksonville when your friend gets pulled over by the police for speeding. The police search the car and find some marijuana on one of your friends. Now they want to arrest everyone in the car for possession, can they?

By: James Davis

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You’re riding around with your friends in downtown Jacksonville when your friend gets pulled over by the police for speeding. The police search the car and find some marijuana on one of your friends. Now they want to arrest everyone in the car for possession, can they?

Generally speaking, no, they can’t (but that doesn’t mean they won’t try). The 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution requires that no one is arrested (or searched) without “probable cause.” While probable cause is a legal term without a precise definition, basically it means that no one can be arrested without a good, specific reason. Riding in a car with people who have drugs on them is not a good enough reason for a police officer to arrest you. It is also not a good enough reason for them to search you individually.
Not Always the Case…
Now, with that said, there are a few exceptions to this general rule. The first would be if no one claims the drugs. Say there are four people in a car and police find drugs on the floor board, in between all the passengers. If no one claims the drugs, the officer might have reason to believe that any one of the four people in the car were in possession of the drugs. In this case the officer might arrest all four of the occupants.
Another situation that might justify an arrest is if, after the officer finds drugs, someone consents to a search of their person and then the officer finds additional drugs on them. In this situation the officer gets consent to search the car from the owner/driver and finds drugs. Once he finds the drugs he asks all the occupants if he can search them individually as well. If they say yes, and he finds additional drugs, then the officer can arrest anyone who had drugs on them. Note that the Supreme Court has determined that the use of dogs does not constitute a “search,” as long as that use is reasonable (i.e., the officer can’t make you wait hours for the canine unit to arrive).
This brings up an important point about dealing with the police: You do not need to consent to a search. By consenting to a search, you essentially give up your right to challenge the underlying circumstances around that search. For example, if an officer is not legally entitled to search someone (because there is no probable cause), but the person gives him permission to do so, whatever the officer finds is generally admissible in a trial against that person. If he refuses the search, on the other hand, he holds the officer to the standard outlined in the Constitution, “probable cause.”

Attorney James Davis has represented thousands of people facing criminal charges and has extensive experience defending drug crimes.   Call our office for a free consultation to find out if your rights have been violated.