As American citizens we are all protected by the Fourth Amendment – the right not to be subject to unreasonable search and seizure. This means that the police cannot stop you while you are walking or driving your car and search you or your belongings without “probable cause”. Probable cause is generally defined as a reasonable suspicion that a person is engaged in criminal activity. The smell of marijuana wafting from a car is a classic example of probable cause which would allow a police officer to conduct a stop.
Probable Cause to Stop the Vehicle
According to news reports, this is what happened recently to Paris Hilton — a police officer smelled marijuana coming from Hilton’s vehicle giving him probable cause to initiate a stop of the vehicle. Hilton removed some lip balm from her purse and a bag of cocaine fell from her purse in view of the officer. Paris Hilton was then arrested for drug possession, a felony charge.
Drugs Were in “Plain View”
Although the officer had probable cause to stop the vehicle, if the cocaine had not fallen from Hilton’s purse in “plain view” of the police officer, the officer would not at that point have had probable cause to search her purse. Hilton and her belongings, including the cocaine in her purse, were protected by the fourth amendment and not subject to search and seizure. But once the drugs fell out of her purse in plain view, Hilton lost her right to privacy. The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable search and seizure, but does not protect you from illegal activity that is in plain view.
Ironically, if the cocaine had not fallen out of Hilton’s purse, she probably would not have been arrested at all. Hilton was not driving the car — her boyfriend was driving, so he was arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Also, if marijuana was present in the vehicle and the boyfriend assumed responsibility for possession of the marijuana, Hilton would not have been charged. Generally, if one person in a car owns up to possessing the drugs, in this case pot, the other passengers will not be charged. For Hilton, it’s too late to avoid an arrest, but hopefully she has a good criminal defense attorney to represent her against her cocaine possession charge.