Drug Searches on Public Transportation: What Is the Law in Colorado?

If a police officer pulls you over for a traffic violation, they might ask to search your vehicle. You have the right to say no, which you can and should exercise, even when feel you have nothing to hide.

What about traveling on public transit, though? What are your rights in then?

Because public transit is paid for by tax dollars, it is considered public property. However, you still have the right to refuse a search of your person unless the officer has probable cause, as we cover below.

The Fourth Amendment Protects Coloradans’ Privacy

The Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution reads as follows:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

This means that law enforcement officers cannot legally search your person or property without probable cause. Any evidence obtained during an illegal search and seizure is not admissible in court.

In the case of drug crimes, the type and amount of substance you’re found to be in possession of is the primary evidence and sentencing criteria. Therefore, if the drugs are seized illegally, your case will be thrown out.

Applying the Fourth Amendment While Riding Public Transportation

On public transit, you have the right to a “legitimate expectation of privacy.” This covers both your person and the personal effects that you bring on the bus with you.

For example, an opaque bag that contains an illicit substance would be considered your “personal effects,” and cannot be searched without probable cause. However, this would not apply to drugs that are exposed in the open.

If the police see drugs in plain sight or have other reasons to believe that you may be in possession of an illicit substance (for example disruptive intoxicated behavior or a strong odor of drugs), this would be probable cause to conduct a search.

You can also be brought up on drug charges if the police conduct a search based on probable cause for another offense. For example, theft.

Importantly, if the police enter a bus and ask to search your person and belongings, you have the right to say no – a right that you can and should exercise. This can be an intimidating situation, so it’s important to know your rights ahead of time.

Drug Dogs and Public Transportation in Colorado

You might have noticed working dogs in airports or bus stations. These dogs could be trained to detect either explosives or narcotics. These dogs can be used routinely, even if the police don’t suspect that a specific person has contraband.

However, once a bus or train is in motion, it cannot be stopped by drug-sniffing dogs. Delaying a bus or other form of transit for unreasonable suspicion is against the Fourth Amendment. That’s why dogs usually work passengers standing in line waiting to buy a ticket or board.

If You’re Caught with Drugs on a Colorado Bus

If you are caught in possession of a controlled substance on a bus or other form of public transit, do not panic. Even a consensual search or a search that meets the standard of “probable cause” will not necessarily end in a criminal conviction.

If You’re Caught with Drugs on a Colorado Bus

There are many defenses for drug possession other than illegal search and seizure. For example:

  • Drugs were not yours
  • Evidence was planted
  • Coercion or duress
  • Struggling with addiction and currently seeking rehabilitation

A Colorado drug crimes lawyer can help you develop the best possible defense strategy for your case. Stay calm and reach out for advice.


About the Author:

Denver-based criminal defense and DUI attorney Jacob E. Martinez is a knowledgeable and experienced litigator with a record of success providing innovative solutions to clients facing criminal charges of any severity. Mr. Martinez has been designated a Top 100 Trial Lawyer by the National Trial Lawyers and has been awarded both the Avvo Client’s Choice Award and Avvo Top Attorney designation, evidencing his reputation for his exemplary criminal and DUI defense work and high moral standards.