Cars are great conveniences – but they’re also useful for committing crimes and eluding arrests. Criminals often find hiding places for items they want to conceal from the police: drugs, cash, weapons, and stolen items, for example.
Because cars hadn’t yet been invented when the U.S. Constitution was ratified, there are no written guidelines for vehicle searches. But various criminal cases have provided many opportunities for U.S. courts to issue guidelines about stops, searches, and seizures of evidence.
Drivers and passengers have limited Fourth Amendment protection against intrusive searches. That’s because roads, highways, and parking lots are public places, and the mobility of cars means that waiting for a search warrant may not be a practical option. This principle works to an officer’s advantage.
But officers need to remember that hunches, suspicions, and (surprising to many officers) past experience can’t be used to justify a vehicle search.
These guidelines can be frustrating to work with. On the one hand, past court decisions seem to give you the right to search a vehicle when a traffic stop seems to be going wrong. On the other hand, your trained intuition does not carry any weight in a court of law.
How can you resolve this apparent contradiction? By writing an effective report.
Suspicions, hunches, intuition, and your experienced eye must be converted into observable facts. For example, you can’t write “The two back-seat passengers seemed anxious to hide something.” Instead you could write:
While I was questioning the driver, I heard the two back-seat passengers whispering to each other. I saw the man slide his hand across the woman’s lap. She put her hand over his. Then I saw her drop her hand into the space between her seat and the rear passenger door.
Here are other details you might look for and record at a traffic stop:
- darting eyes
- reaching towards the glove compartment or a pocket, or under the seat
- slowly moving an envelope, bag, or box out of sight
You should also record inconsistent answers to questions you’ve asked, dangerous driving maneuvers you observed, and anything suspicious you saw, heard, or smelled. Specific details and descriptions are the keys to a successful prosecution.
Good grammar, spelling, and English usage will help the prosecutor make a strong case in court. In fact the defendant may decide not to fight the charges if your report is professional and convincing. These tips can help ensure that you’ve produced a well-written report:
- avoid rambling, complicated sentences
- use the spellchecker if you’re writing on a laptop
- keep a dictionary handy if you’re writing by hand
- ask a colleague to read over your reports before you submit them