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When Can the Police Search Your Car?

Many drivers treat their motor vehicles as a home away from home. You might consider your car to be a semi-private place where you can keep personal items safe while you're out.

Yet, a traffic stop for a traffic violation can put this privacy at risk. A vehicle search could lead to criminal charges in some circumstances.

You might choose to allow or deny a search of your car. Know what to expect if a law enforcement officer tells you they want to investigate.

Drivers' Fourth Amendment Rights

The Fourth Amendment's protection against unlawful search and seizure makes arbitrary police searches illegal. An officer first must have reason to believe you committed a crime, such as driving under the influence (DUI). Without your permission or a valid reason, an illegal search violates your constitutional rights.

The law generally gives police more leeway to search vehicles than other property types like homes. The search warrant rule has an automobile exception. This exception means you have a lower expectation of privacy under the law when driving a car.

The automobile exception addresses public safety concerns such as drunk driving or excessive speeding. Driving is a privilege, and vehicles can cause significant injuries.

Reasons for a Police Search

A police officer can conduct a search of your vehicle under the following circumstances:

  • You give 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 protection, such as a search for a hidden weapon
  • The officer has a valid search warrant
  • The police conduct a search incident to arrest, such as a search for illegal drugs

It can be difficult to tell whether the police have a justifiable reason for the search. But, these scenarios show that the police do not always need your permission.

Consenting to a Vehicle Search

Officers may ask for permission to search your vehicle. You may decline the request or remain silent if they don't present a warrant.

Even if you are unaware of your rights and consent to a search because you believe you have no choice, ignorance of the law is no defense. Granting permission to search waives your Fourth Amendment rights.

If an officer searches your vehicle without your permission, do not argue with the officer but remain silent. The prosecution won't use evidence from an unreasonable search in a case against you because the court will exclude it from your case.

Vehicle Searches With Probable Cause

Probable cause exists when an officer has substantial reason to believe a crime is being or has been committed. This belief gives the officer the legal authority to search the vehicle without a warrant (except in Washington).

For example, the police can search your car if your eyes are bloodshot and they smell marijuana. They can also search your car if it matches the description of a getaway vehicle from a retail robbery.

Evidence in Plain View

Evidence of a crime visible outside the vehicle can lead to a more thorough search. An officer can seize any evidence, contraband, or other illegal items in plain view.

For example, an officer may search after seeing a glass pipe with white residue on the car's dashboard. In that scenario, the drug paraphernalia in plain view establishes probable cause of a crime like drug possession or drugged driving.

Federal courts have expanded the plain view doctrine to include other types of sensory evidence. For example, an officer or drug-sniffing dog might smell drugs near a car's trunk. Or, an officer may hear the sound of a kidnapping victim in the back of a van crying out for help.

Reasonable Suspicion for a Search

The threshold for reasonable suspicion is less stringent than probable cause. It is more than a mere hunch but doesn't need indisputable evidence of a crime or criminal activity.

For example, a motorist swerving from lane to lane might not be drunk but just a chaotic driver. Their actions still give an officer reasonable suspicion to investigate whether there are signs of alcohol use.

Legal Advice for Vehicle Searches

Police searches are a serious matter. Contact a DUI lawyer or experienced criminal defense attorney to help with an unlawful search and seizure. Your attorney will be able to review the evidence in your case and help you decide whether to file a motion to suppress illegally obtained evidence.

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