Civil Rights Law
Things happen quickly when the police make an arrest. Often, you don't have time to think about your rights because the situation is overwhelming.
That's why it's important to be familiar with your rights before an arrest ever happens. Especially if you are arrested in or near your car, you need to understand how and to what extent the police can legally search your car at the time of your arrest.
As a general rule, law enforcement officers must get a warrant before conducting a search. But, like many rules, there are exceptions. Two big exceptions to the warrant requirement overlap in this context:
Police officers can't just search an entire car any time they pull someone over. However, if an officer has probable cause to believe there is evidence of a crime in the vehicle or they reasonably believe the search is necessary for their protection, they can search it without a warrant.
Additionally, conducting a lawful arrest allows officers to search the person they arrested and the immediate surrounding areas without a warrant to ensure officer safety and/or prevent the person arrested from destroying or concealing evidence.
Combining these two warrant exceptions would make it seem like cops could simply arrest a suspect, put them in the back of a squad car, and then go back and search the entire vehicle. But that's not quite the case.
In 2009, the Supreme Court tried to clarify the power of the police to search a vehicle following a recent occupant's arrest. The Court ruled that the police can only search the car without a warrant if:
The Court emphasized that searches conducted without a search warrant are preemptively illegal. And while vehicle searches incident to an arrest are an exception to that general rule, only very limited searches may be allowed.
The Court's ruling in Arizona v. Gant requires police officers to reconsider when they may legally search cars at the time of an arrest. For example, if police arrest you and hold you in custody, then the first two exceptions would not apply because it is no longer possible for you to reach for a weapon or attempt to destroy evidence in the car.
And whether the third exception would apply would depend on the reason for the arrest. If you are arrested for a traffic offense such as drunk driving, for example, then the police could not seize evidence related to a recent robbery in the area, since you were not arrested for a robbery.
It's also important to remember another exception to the warrant requirement regarding vehicle searches. If the police impound your car, they can search the entire vehicle for inventory and officer safety reasons. And while they can't impound your car for the sole purpose of searching it, if the police have any legitimate reason to tow and impound it — even unpaid parking tickets — they can use any evidence they find inside.