Searching Rides: Dirty and Dangerous

The less inclined you are to search something in a vehicle you've stopped, the better the odds that you should. Diapers and sanitary napkins have been used to store narcotics.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

Whether you're working narcotics interdiction or just inclined to make the most of your vehicular detentions, vehicle searches probably take up a good deal of your time. And while the concept of searching something may seem relatively easy, those with any time on the job know that good vehicle searches can be an art.

Because while it might not be going mano-a-mano with Professor Moriarty, there's nothing like playing "Where's Waldo" with a parolee with something to lose.

A vast majority of the time—unless you're Jack Bauer from "24" and millions of lives are on the line—your ability to conduct the search safely is of paramount concern, easily transcending the import of whatever you stand to recover from the vehicle.

It follows that one thing you definitely don't want to do is reach into a car while a person is sitting inside. As mentioned in my April 15 column, you don't want to find yourself dangling outside the car door going down the road at 70 miles per hour.

Secondly, you don't know what the hell you're apt to come up with once you do reach inside. A fellow deputy saw a female occupant hurriedly stash something under her driver's seat in response to his approach. He just as hurriedly reached under the seat and grabbed it, believing he was seizing a stashed firearm.

What he came up with more closely approximated a eunoch's prosthesis—albeit one the size of a flesh-toned booster rocket. Worse still, this battery-powered vibrating gizmo's singular purpose had recently been realized by its red-faced owner. To quote the deputy: "Ewww..."

It's better to first detain the vehicle's occupants outside the car, but in a manner that they don't pose a threat or are apt to wander away. This may come down to a seated detention or arrest in the patrol car, or having a second officer on scene to keep an eye on the proceedings.

Getting inside the car yourself most often will come down to a matter of probable cause, or a permissive search. Your knowledge of case law should be sound as should be your ability to defend against allegations of hunting expeditions or extorted compliance.

While using sight and smell to uncover narcotics usage are tried and proven standards of admissibility, other search justifications may limit the breadth and scope of your search considerably. But for the purposes of this article, I'm assuming that we'll be going for the bumper-to-bumper approach.

Inauguration of the search process often comes down to a training officer telling a rookie to find the gun or dope and being expected to do so. This baptism by fire may include said rookie either finding contraband placed within the perimeter of the search by the FTO, or being accused of missing something that wasn't there in the first place.

Fortunately, some things tend to stand out. This was particularly true 25 years ago, when quite a few rides had visibly adulterated interiors that suggested hiding locations. Cops could find crap stashed where overhead visors were torn. Stuff was stuffed up under the dashboard, often near the steering column or by the stereo.

On older models, it wasn't unusual to find where the owners had cut holes in the floorboard to drop their dope through prior to coming to a stop (one more good reason not to stay on a suspect's bumper—you'd miss the white bindles or balloons otherwise).

Just as a grid search for outstanding suspects or missing children helps to systematically eliminate possible locations, so, too, does a step-by-step canvass of the vehicle.

Note I said vehicle.

Not just the interior. Gas tanks, bumpers, fenders, air manifolds—if it's on or inside the car and your gut tells you something and probable cause or a permissive search allows you, and you don't have five calls on hold, then check it out.

Of course, you want to avoid catching any diseases or injuries along the way. Slash- and puncture-resistant gloves can go a long way in keeping yourself safe. And depending on the frequency with which you use your gloves, you may want to consider a "double-wrap"—placing your leather gloves inside protective disposable gloves.

When it comes to the vehicle interior, many cops gravitate directly to under the seat. But working from the front to the rear and from top to bottom is less haphazard and covers the bases.

In any event, when you do get to checking those more-difficult-to-reach areas, try as best you can to see what you'll be reaching into. I once found a mousetrap under a front seat. Now, the guy wasn't the most hygienic dude—what druggies are?—but I always wondered if he hadn't put it there for some unsuspecting cop. Of course, he was living out of his ride, so it's even money.

If you find yourself in the driver's seat, look at things from his perspective. Take his physical stature into account: What's realistically within his reach?

Take a visual inventory of the things inside the car, and what he's brought along for the ride. Just what does he have that's capable of having something hidden inside?

Just as some criminals like to caper in the rain because they know cops don't like to do t-stops in the elements, some dirtbags try to live down to their name in exploiting a lack of hygiene.

Unfortunately, this makes unmentionables real popular hiding places. The less inclined you are to search something, the better the odds that you should. Diapers, sanitary napkins—as apt to have been used, or not—have been used to store narcotics. I'm not saying to start snooping around every manner of soiled linen you come across—unless that's your bag—just to consider the totality of the circumstances.

Sometimes it helps to just ask the occupants where their shit is. It's no guarantee, but it's surprising what people will give up simply by being asked about it. Some will volunteer up lesser offenses in the hopes you'll be satisfied with the roach clip and forego looking for the dime bag (as if).

Throughout, you want to be wearing some form of protective gloves. It's not just for hygienic concerns, but to counter the risks of puncture or cut wounds you may get from exposed needles or edged objects.

Educate yourself as to the kind of hiding stashes produced by domestic and import auto manufacturers. Many have little compartments in headliners, floorboards, and the rears of seats.

Then there are the things that people will put inside their rides. "Commercial products" with hidden compartments that can be blended in with groceries. Many mimic the appearance of automotive products: wax cleansers, oil cans, air fresheners.

When you're finished snooping, consider having a second officer take a look, too. If two heads are better than one, it makes sense to put another pair of eyes to work.

With practice, you'll find more and more stuff, and eventually reconsider some of the stops you've made in the past as you realize areas that you've missed. Of course, if you're working K-9, you've really got it made and probably don't have to worry about insinuating yourself into too many stinking rides.

Of course, the saving grace is that if you do, you're apt to become pretty good at searches. Hell, you'll even find the dope in your victim's recovered vehicles that the suspects overlooked.

Finally, keep in touch with your inner youth—and remember where you used to stash your own shit.

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Author Dean Scoville Headshot
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