Burning Question: Searching Cars and the Fourth Amendment

Today’s burning question: We have a battalion chief who insists on searching cars at vehicle accidents, for mainly for drugs (legal or illegal). He will literally search it like a police officer would. He never asks the patient or bystanders that may be with the patient for permission before searching. He recently searched a car and the driver/patient was questioning what he was doing to the point a police officer had to intervene. Is this BC violating the patient’s rights and is he breaking the law?

Answer: Most firefighters do not consider themselves to be “government agents”. We tend to think of ourselves as working directly for the people we serve, and things like the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment, along with the need for probable cause, only apply to the police, the FBI and folks like that who are looking to charge someone criminally.

The reality is we are agents of government, and we are subject to the Fourth Amendment. The founders of our nation understood that people who work for government (whether well-intentioned or not) cannot be allowed to arbitrarily search people’s private areas. We can debate whether in a given instance a search was justified. We can debate whether while treating a patient some form of contraband was visible in plain view. Debating things on a case-by-case basis is one thing. But to routinely conduct a search of a person’s automobile looking for drugs is an example of government abuse at its worst. It is not only illegal, the battalion chief opens himself and the department up to a civil rights lawsuit for violating the 4th Amendment. It is also a violation of the oath that firefighters (those who are sworn) take: to uphold the Constitution and the Laws of the United States and the State of…….. . In that regard many fire departments consider a violation of one’s oath of office to be a disciplinary offense.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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