Gregory McHam v. State

Fourth Amendment Search of Vehicle During Traffic Stop

In a recent post-conviction relief case before the South Carolina Supreme Court, the Court reviewed an issue of first impression about whether a police officer’s opening of a car door during a traffic stop constituted a “search” under the Fourth Amendment.  The Court ruled that it did. 

The open door “enables the officer to observe portions of the interior of the vehicle that would not otherwise be readily visible to those who are outside the vehicle.”  The Court went on to stipulate, however, that in cases where the officer believes that he or she is in danger, the warrantless search is not a violation of the motorist’s Fourth Amendment rights.  Justice Donald W. Beatty, writing on behalf of the Court, stated that the search is justified based on “the general principle that officer safety can justify the opening of a door to an occupied vehicle under reasonable circumstances.” 

Though concern has been raised by some criminal defense lawyers across the state that this ruling may serve as justification for police officers to routinely open vehicle doors as traffic stops are inherently dangerous, others point out that the application may be relatively narrow according to the facts of the case.  Even though an officer may be allowed to open the door, they must still have probable cause to rifle through the vehicle.  Additionally, a police officer’s already established power to ask a person to step out of the vehicle effectuates the same result: opening the vehicle door.  At least one lawyer suggested a simple solution- lock your car doors.

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