On July 17, 2013, the South Carolina Supreme Court held as a general principle that officer safety can justify the opening of a door to an occupied vehicle under reasonable circumstances. In McHam v. State of South Carolina, three police officers were conducting a traffic checkpoint and stopped McHam’s vehicle. The officer who first approached the vehicle testified that after he asked for license and registration, McHam and his passenger began making movements the officer did not believe were consistent with obtaining license or registration. He walked around to the other side of the vehicle to observe whether the occupants were reaching for weapons, and when he couldn’t see their hands, he opened the passenger door. Inside the door, the officer saw a bag of crack cocaine, which led to a search of the vehicle and finding other drugs, digital scales, and cash.
The Supreme Court found that the opening of the door was a search without a warrant and then considered whether this warrantless search was reasonable. Traditionally, the following exceptions have allowed for warrantless searches: (1) search incident to a lawful arrest, (2) hot pursuit, (3) stop and frisk, (4) automobile exception, (5) the plain view doctrine, (6) consent, and (7) abandonment. The McHam opinion appears to expand on the automobile exception and serves as a reminder that people do not have as much of an expectation of privacy in their vehicles as many believe.