When Police Can Search Your Car
People often ask me under what circumstances are police allowed to search their car. They are usually wondering about searches made during stops for speeding or other traffic code violations.
Generally, a warrant is required to search your property. However, there are exceptions for automobiles. The main rationale for the exceptions is that since cars are mobile, they will be gone before an officer can get a warrant to search from a judge. A secondary rationale is that since cars are on public streets, drivers should have a reduced expectation of privacy compared to their homes.
The automobile exception to the warrant requirement has two parts:
1. If the police have probable cause that the car contains something illegal like a prohibited weapon or drugs, then they may search the car. Or if the police have probable cause that the car contains the tools used to commit a crime or the proceeds or evidence of a crime, then they may search the car.
Under this part of the exception, the officer can only search the part of the car where what he is looking for may be found.
So if a police officer pulls a driver over for speeding and smells marijuana, he may search the entire car for the drug, including any containers like cups or purses. But if he has probable cause to believe that you have an assault rifle in the car, he could only search where the gun could be hidden and not, say, in a thermos.
2. If an officer makes a lawful arrest of the driver of the car, he may make a warrantless search of the passenger compartment of the car. This search includes the glove compartment but not the trunk.
Note: an officer may always search your car without a warrant if you consent to the search. Sometimes police will pose the question with the implication that you do not have the legal right to refuse. However, you can refuse to consent.
And sometimes a police officer will search your car and then say that you consented when you did not. In a trial, your lawyer can move to suppress whatever the officer found that was illegal, and it will be your word versus the officer’s about whether you consented to the search.
For assistance with your criminal case, Contact Me by calling (713) 487-7575.