Legal Guide

Do I Have to Let the Police Search My Car?

You needn’t be a criminal to be concerned about the possibility of a cop searching your car if you’ve been pulled over, even if you are stopped randomly at a roadblock. Long before cars were invented, our forefathers ratified the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution to prohibit “unreasonable searches and seizures,” taking into account the rights of individuals to protect their personal property and their privacy.

If a car search by law enforcement officers has led to your arrest, and possibly resulted in destruction of property or personal trauma, you should consult promptly with a strong criminal defense attorney. He or she will have the detailed legal knowledge and the strong skill set to defend you and see to it that your rights are protected.

Why You May Be Reluctant to Have Your Car Searched

There are all sorts of reasons you may not want your car searched. Although it’s certainly possible that you have contraband in your car -- on or under the seats, on the dashboard, in the glove compartment or in the trunk -- it is also possible that you have things inside your vehicle that, though not illegal, are personal and would be embarrassing to reveal.

You may have a legally registered firearm or legally prescribed medication that may make you suspect in the eyes of the police. If you belong to a minority group that has a history of being targeted by law enforcement, you may be in serious fear that having your car searched might lead to disastrous consequences. Beyond that, you may simply feel violated at the thought of strange hands touching your sweater, your coffee cup, or your baby’s freshly washed blanket.

What the Fourth Amendment Guarantees

As mentioned earlier, the Fourth Amendment guarantees your protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures,” requiring that the police obtain a warrant in order to override your rights. The warrant must be:

  • Signed by a judge
  • Based on probable cause,
  • Specifically describe/identify the vehicle to be searched
  • Specifically describe the property or person being searched for

In other words, the search cannot be a generic one in which the officers just look around for something, anything, illegal in the vehicle.

Why the Fourth Amendment Isn’t Always Enough to Protect You

While theoretically the police require a warrant to search your vehicle, there are many exceptions that may make you vulnerable. These exceptions are based on The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that [1] a person has less expectation of privacy in a car than in a home and [2] cars can quickly drive off and relocate, making it impractical to obtain a warrant in time to preserve evidence. Interestingly, the courts have ruled that these exceptions apply to motor homes as well as cars, even though the former are abodes as well as vehicles.

The exceptions to the Fourth Amendment include:

  • Probable Cause Searches

Because the police are trained to observe closely, they will stand close to your car and pay attention to all that they see, hear or smell. If they see a possible rifle on the back seat or smell alcohol or marijuana, the law permits them to consider their observation “probable cause” for further investigation.

If their search uncovers evidence of illegal activity, they are well within their rights to issue further charges or to arrest you. This is why it is crucial for you to contact an accomplished criminal defense attorney as soon as you can.

  • Searches "Incident to Arrest"

            If law enforcement officers have cause to arrest you at the time they pull you over -- e.g.

charging you with being impaired by alcohol or drugs -- they are legally allowed to do a limited search without a warrant in order to ensure their own safety and obtain evidence pertaining to the arrest.

It is important to note that “incident to arrest” searches are only permitted if you are still within reach of the car when the police conduct the search. If you are yards from your car and handcuffed, officers can hardly claim that you could have reached for a weapon in your car to endanger them.

  • Searches with Consent

Police can search your car if you give your permission, but many individuals don’t realize that they have the right to refuse the police officer’s request. After all, the cop is clearly in a position of authority. Not only is the officer not required to let you know you can refuse to give consent, she or he is not required to read you your Miranda rights before asking for your consent. Therefore, it is easy to misunderstand that consent is voluntary.

Furthermore, your consent must be freely given to be legal. If the police threatened or coerced you to comply, your lawyer will be able to have the search results ruled inadmissible in a court of law.

  • Inventory Searches

Once a car is impounded, police are not only permitted, but required, to search its interior. A vehicle can be impounded if the officer believes it is being driven recklessly, by an impaired driver, or by a driver who does not have a license, registration, or insurance.

Law enforcement officers are given the right to search impounded cars so that they can inventory the contents. This is necessary to [1] protect the contents and [2] prevent police from being accused of stealing property. Nonetheless, if they come across illegal items during the inventory search, they will typically use this evidence to bring charges and during trial.

Though the word on the street is that police may not search locked glove boxes or other locked containers without a warrant, exceptions are often made to this presumptive rule. Many courts throughout the country have upheld the admissibility of evidence obtained in this way.

Passengers in Searched Cars Are Also at Risk of Arrest

If a search of a car reveals the presence of illegal items, in addition to the driver, passengers in that car may also be charged with crimes. In general, adult passengers in private vehicles are presumed to have knowledge of what is being transported. For this reason, it is extremely important to contact a criminal defense attorney if you were a passenger in a car searched for contraband.

Only an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney Can Answer All Your Questions

Hopefully, this overview is informative and helpful, but it is no substitute for contacting a well-respected criminal defense attorney. Whenever there is the possibility of being convicted of a crime, the stakes are high. Recognizing this fact and finding a criminal defense attorney with a history of successful litigation is essential to preserving your reputation and your freedom.

Author Bio

Attorney Ronald (Ron) Freeman is an experienced trial attorney representing clients throughout Southern California in both State and Federal courts. His state and federal court experience includes handling matters ranging from traffic infractions, misdemeanors, serious felonies to complex life cases.

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