Probable Cause Requirement for Searching Semi-truck

For most semi-truck drivers, their truck/cab/trailer is their home away from home as well as company property. But when their property is searched and seized, it must be determined if it was done so without probable cause.

The Nebraska Legislature has chosen to incorporate federal regulations into Nebraska laws regarding searches or inspections of 18-wheelers. Neb. Rev. Stat. § 75-363 states that the Legislature adopts certain parts of the Title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations. Additionally, this gives the Nebraska State Patrol – including the carrier enforcement division – power to inspect the accounts, records, and equipment of any motor carrier in order to enforce the federal motor carrier safety regulations, and power to adopt their own regulations in order to enforce these statutes.

These regulations state a truck operator may be pulled over without probably cause and searched so long as the search is more of an inspection than an actual search. This inspection is often referred to as an administrative inspection and must be granted so long as the purpose is to perform a reasonable inspection in order to uphold the regulations of the industry.

Most law enforcement inspections of motor carriers are done on the basis of the North American Standard Inspection Program. The program consists of seven different inspections, with the most typical inspections being Levels I through III.

  • Level I: The most invasive but typical inspection done on the road, consisting of a thorough inspection of the vehicle, both interior and exterior, around and under the vehicle.  Will include a detailed look at the driver’s paperwork.
  • Level II: A less thorough inspection. Will include same inspection process except for the under-vehicle inspection and only a quick look at the driver’s paperwork.
  • Level III: A paperwork-only inspection. The least invasive inspection.

It should be noted the administrative inspection exception does not provide unlimited discretion to the inspecting officer to search the occupant’s property and containers without probable cause. That is, when an inspection is being conducted pursuant merely to a regulatory statute and probable cause for further searching does not exist, the inspection must be limited to ensuring compliance with the administrative regulations.

At both the federal and state level, law enforcement can stop a motor carrier and inspect the carrier for violations of safety regulations. However, this does not give the inspecting officer unlimited reign on what may be searched, as courts have held that personal containers are not subject to a regulatory administrative search in the absence of a probable cause.

If you or someone you know has been pulled over on the Interstate, contact the relentless criminal defense attorneys at Berry Law Firm.

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