The short answer is: Yes. Police can legally search your car if they have probable cause.
The Fourth Amendment's protection against unlawful search and seizure generally prohibits arbitrary vehicle searches by police. If the police search your car without a warrant, your permission, or a valid reason, they are violating your constitutional rights. Nevertheless, there are some limited situations in which police can search a car without a warrant or your consent.
When it comes to vehicle searches, courts generally give police more leeway compared to when police are attempting to search a residence. This is because, under the "automobile exception" to the search warrant requirement, courts have recognized that individuals have a lower expectation of privacy when driving a car than when they're in their homes.
It’s also worth noting that, while the U.S. Constitution sets the minimum level of protection for an individual's rights, states are free to provide even more protections to an individual’s privacy rights. They could therefore pass laws placing greater restrictions on police when it comes to searching vehicles without a warrant.
When Can Police Do a Warrantless Search?
Not every police search must be made under a lawfully executed warrant. The Supreme Court has ruled that warrantless police conduct may comply with the Fourth Amendment, so long as it's reasonable under the circumstances.
So, when can police search your car without a warrant? Generally, under the following circumstances:
- You have given the officer consent;
- The officer has probable cause to believe there is evidence of a crime in your vehicle;
- The officer reasonably believes a search is necessary for their own protection (a hidden weapon, for example); and
- You have been arrested and the search is related to that arrest (such as a search for illegal drugs).
Automobiles may be stopped if an officer possesses a reasonable and articulable suspicion that the motorist has violated a traffic law. If the reason for the stop is a minor traffic offense like speeding, the officer likely wouldn't be permitted to search your car without more reason. However, if police arrest you for conduct arising out of a traffic stop, a search of your vehicle incident to arrest will usually be allowed.
Police Can Search Impounded Cars Without a Warrant
If the police have towed and impounded your car, they have the authority to search your vehicle. This inventory search can be as comprehensive as the police wish, and will most likely include opening any locked compartments or boxes found within your car. The reason why your car was towed and impounded doesn't matter. It could be for something as simple as a parking violation or as serious as a car theft.
However, police cannot tow and impound your car for the sole purpose of conducting a search. Police are required to follow strict procedures when it comes to these types of searches.
Have Questions About Vehicle Searches? Ask an Attorney
If you've seen enough episodes of Cops, you might think that police can search your vehicle anywhere and anytime. That's not the case, and if your vehicle is unlawfully searched, it could prevent a prosecutor from using any evidence obtained from that search against you. Reach out to an experienced criminal defense attorney who can help you to challenge any illegally obtained evidence and to present your strongest defense at trial.