Criminal Law

Can Police Search My Car Without a Warrant?

Key Takeaways:

  • Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures can apply to vehicles as well.
  • Items the police can clearly see when they pull a car over aren’t necessarily protected by the Fourth Amendment.
  • Items that are not in plain sight are protected, but police officers may still search vehicles without a warrant in certain situations.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the public from unreasonable searches and seizures. It requires federal, state, and local law enforcement to obtain a search warrant based on probable cause or sworn testimony before conducting searches, and this includes searches of your car.

There are situations where police officers will not need a warrant to search your car. If you are facing criminal charges and have concerns about an unlawful search of your car and your Constitutional rights regarding search and seizure, you should talk to a criminal defense lawyer. Every situation is different, and the smallest details about what the officers can see and what they have probable cause to believe will hinge on those details.

The Motor Vehicle Exception

The protections provided by the Fourth Amendment are based on everyone having a right to privacy. But people waive their right to privacy when they allow the public to freely view their property. The Supreme Court ruled in Carrol v. United States that people in cars do not have the same expectation of privacy as those in buildings.

This means that items the police can clearly see if they pull your car over for a traffic stop aren’t necessarily protected by the Fourth Amendment. Items that are not in plain view are protected, but police officers may still conduct a warrantless search of your vehicle in certain situations. So the search warrant requirement does not always apply to every vehicle search.

In establishing the “motor vehicle exception,” the Supreme Court ruled that people do not typically live in their cars or use them to store personal possessions. However, the court further ruled that the motor vehicle exception should also apply to motor homes that are capable of being moved, trailers pulled by trucks, boats, houseboats, and airplanes.

Probable Cause Is Still Required

Though the motor vehicle exception does exist for police, car searches without a warrant still require officers to have probable cause. The police need to show that there is probable cause that your vehicle contains:

  • Evidence of a crime, criminal activity, or proceeds (such as stolen money) of a crime
  • Items used to commit a crime (such as drug paraphernalia)

Similarly, police officers don’t need a warrant they have probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains contraband, such as smelling marijuana smoke inside a car. However, case law is changing in some states that have legalized marijuana about whether an odor is enough to conduct a search.

Additionally, if you are arrested, such as for DUI, then police likely do not need a warrant to search your car.

When Police Must Obtain a Search Warrant To Search a Car

Under the Fourth Amendment, law enforcement must obtain search warrants in the following circumstances:

  • When they do not have permission to conduct a search
  • When the motor vehicle exception does not apply
  • When items are not in plain sight
  • When no emergency circumstances for a search exist

Before a judge issues a search warrant, police must provide probable cause for a search. This evidence could include the testimony of police officers, information provided by witnesses or informants, and physical evidence.

It’s important to remember that if police need a warrant and they don’t have one, you can refuse a search of your vehicle.

Terry Stops

Courts generally support police in situations when the safety of officers or members of the public may be in jeopardy. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police can search criminal suspects and their vehicles for weapons based on reasonable suspicion rather than probable cause. A reasonable suspicion should be more than a hunch or a guess but less than probable cause. The “Terry stop” is named after the case that decided the issue.

Can Police Search an Impounded Vehicle?

While police cannot stop and impound a vehicle simply to conduct a search, they can legally search impounded vehicles. This can include a situation as seemingly minor as having your car towed for illegal parking. Law enforcement can also search stolen vehicles that have been recovered.

A Criminal Defense Attorney Can Protect Your Rights

You have constitutional protections against an illegal search of your car. If you believe your vehicle was unlawfully searched, a good criminal defense attorney will give you legal advice and may be able to get any evidence obtained from that search excluded. That could mean having your charges dismissed or reduced.

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