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.
So, when can a police officer legally search your car?
The general constitutional rule is that police searches of persons require a warrant based on probable cause and approved by a judge. However, over time, a series of exceptions to the warrant requirement have become the norm.
Police may search a vehicle if there is probable cause to believe that the car contains evidence of criminal activity. For example, if a car interior smells like marijuana, the police can search the vehicle. Under this exception, the police can search the car trunk or containers where contraband could be found.
If a person has been arrested, is unsecured and is within reach of the passenger compartment, police may search the car. Or if it is reasonable to believe evidence may be found in the car relevant to the arrest.
A officer may search a car if he reasonably believes that a person is dangerous and might access the car for weapons.
If an officer asks a person if he can search their car, and the person says yes. The consent must be voluntary. The officer cannot intimidate or harass the person into consenting to the search.
Police officers may search a car that is lawfully impounded. The search must be made pursuant to a standardized policy. This exception is known as an inventory search.
Unfortunately, an officer may illegally search a car and falsely justify the search with one of the exceptions listed above. A good lawyer can help litigate an illegal search and try to keep improperly seized evidence from being used against a defendant.
For informational purposes only. Always consult a reputable lawyer for advice on your case.