When Can the Police Search My Car?

The constitution says that you have a right to be free from unreasonable searches of your home, your person, and your car. Car searches rarely involve a search warrant issued.

You hear a siren, you pull over, and the next thing you know, a police officer yanks you out of your seat and frisks you while her partner searches through your car. That’s the Hollywood version; in the real world, the cops generally don’t look a whole lot like Angelina Jolie and they cannot search every car they stop. 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 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 depends on many factors.

Public policy underlying Fourth Amendment 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 is treated differently from your person and your home, and is subject to less protection against searches than they are.

Types of “Stops” Determine Search 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.

In general, there are three types of vehicle searches:

  • a “search incident to arrest,” which allows a search of the immediate vicinity of the driver (in other words, where he can reach inside the car) when the police have grounds to place the driver under arrest
  • an inventory search, which 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), and
  • a probable cause search, which is allowed where the police have a reasonable suspicion 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).

The Supreme Court Limited The Search Allowed In Routine Traffic Stops

In the 2009 case, officers pulled Rodney Gant over and arrested him for driving on a suspended license. After handcuffing Gant and placing him in the patrol car, the officers then searched his car and found a bag of cocaine in the pocket of a jacket on the backseat. The Court ruled that a search of the interior of the car was not reasonable because Gant was not in the car within reach of any weapon. A vehicle search is allowed in such a stop onlywhen the driver is unsecured and within reaching distance of the inside of the car. A broader “probable cause” search was not justified in this case either, because the officers had no reasonable belief that they would find evidence relevant to the crime that they arrested Gant for (driving on a suspended license). The Court pointed out that, although a person’s privacy interest in vehicle is less significant than in his home or person, it is “nevertheless important and deserving of constitutional protection.”

The Court also noted that circumstances of a stop may 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, glove boxes, etc.

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.

Practical Considerations

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. It is going to cost a lot in time and misery to fix that. 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.


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 do it. Once you do consent, it is much harder to challenge the search and 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 an attorney experienced in laws in your state.

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