When Can the Police Search My Car?

The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable searches, but circumstances unique to vehicles can end up justifying warrantless searches. Learn more about what constitutes a reasonable or unreasonable search of a vehicle.

You have fewer constitutional rights against searches of your car than of your person or home, but even in a car, you are protected against unreasonable searches. This article discusses how the law defines what is reasonable and unreasonable under the circumstances.

Fourth Amendment Rights

Your right to be free from unreasonable searches is enshrined in the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. But an officer who pulls you over may be able to search your car without a warrant under certain circumstances. How thorough that search can be will depend on many factors.

Public Policy for Search Restrictions

The drafters of the Constitution were concerned with unreasonable bodily and home searches. This concern is addressed in the Fourth Amendment, which aims to prevent police officers from rifling, at will, through a person's private effects.

Vehicles as Private Spaces

Once the Model T rumbled onto American roads, the U.S. Supreme Court had to adjust the boundaries of the Fourth Amendment right to deal with a new zone of personal privacy. The Court extended the constitutional protection against unreasonable searches to include a person's vehicle. However, under the Court's decisions, your car carries fewer protections against searches than your person or your home.

When Warrantless Searches Are Allowed

In 2009, the Supreme Court handed down a decision that clarified (somewhat) how far a police officer can go in searching a vehicle after pulling it over. Essentially, the scope of the search depends on the reason the police stopped the car and the circumstances involved. In general, there are three types of vehicle searches.

Search incident to arrest. A "search incident to arrest" allows a search of the immediate vicinity of the driver (in other words, where the driver can reach inside the car) when the police have grounds to place the driver under arrest.

Probable cause search. A probable cause search is allowed where the police have a reasonable belief that a weapon or evidence of the crime for which they stopped the driver may be found (this search would include a pat-down of the driver for weapons or contraband).

Inventory search. An inventory search is allowed when the police arrest a driver and impound the car (to list the items in the car in order to avoid civil liability for the loss or damage of the car owner's property).

The circumstances of a stop might determine how far police officers can go in searches. For example, in Rodney Gant's situation, more than one officer was on-site and Gant was in the patrol car at the time the officers searched his vehicle. As there was no risk to the officers of Gant reaching for a weapon, their search of his vehicle was unjustified.

In an earlier case, the Court allowed a more invasive search because the sole officer on the scene was outnumbered by the arrestees and the arrest was for drug offenses. Under those circumstances, the officer had reasonable grounds to believe he was at risk and a search could turn up weapons or evidence relevant to the arresting offense. In fact, the Court ruled in the earlier case that a police officer in such circumstances is allowed to search even closed containers inside a vehicle, such as purses, briefcases, and glove boxes.

In short, the main factors justifying a vehicle search are:

  • immediate control of weapons (allowing a search of a vehicle's passenger compartment)
  • probable cause to believe a vehicle contains evidence of criminal activity (allowing a search of any area of the vehicle in which the evidence of the arresting crime might be found), and
  • other circumstances in which safety or preservation of evidence would justify a search.

Other Bases for Vehicle Search

As with any encounter with the police, the person with the badge largely controls how things turn out for the person stopped. So, while it is crucial to know your constitutional rights and the limits placed on the police, it is equally important to use common sense in any encounter with authorities.

Plain View

Even if the police stop a person for a broken taillight, if the cop can see a bag of cocaine on the passenger seat, that driver is not going to drive off with a "fix-it" ticket. An officer's visual scan of the inside of a car is allowed in any stop, and any evidence of illegal activity spotted can lead to a more invasive search.

An officer can conduct a search based on anything in her "plain view," and plain view includes plain smell. So, if an officer gets a whiff of marijuana or alcohol when you roll down the window, expect at least a longer stop.

Consent

When a police officer knows that she does not have a legal basis to search your car, she may ask if you will consent to it. You do not have to consent and, if she had real grounds to search, she would just conduct the search. But saying no to an officer is easier said than done. Once you do consent, it is much harder to challenge the search and evidence of anything she finds.

Consult a Lawyer

Defeating even an improper search is difficult. Failing to defeat it may mean jail time, a fine, or other serious consequences. If you have been stopped by a police officer and have questions about your rights and options, consult a local criminal defense attorney with experience defending cases in your area.

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