Can Police Search a Car Without a Warrant?

What Are My Rights If Police Want to Search My Vehicle?

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the public from unreasonable searches and seizures. It requires federal and state law enforcement to obtain a search warrant based on probable cause or sworn testimony before conducting searches.

The protections provided by the Fourth Amendment are based on everyone having a right to privacy. But people waive their right to privacy when they allow the public to freely view their property. This means that items the police can clearly see when they pull a car over aren’t necessarily protected by the Fourth Amendment. Items that are not in plain sight are protected, but law enforcement officers may still search vehicles without a warrant in certain situations.

Indeed, the search warrant requirement does not always apply to every vehicle search. Vehicle searches are largely exempt from warrant requirements under the motor vehicle exception established by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Motor Vehicle Exception

Due to the evolution of cars over the years, lawyers have argued that different rules should be established for automobiles. Protections against unreasonable searches and seizures are based upon an expectation of privacy, and the Supreme Court ruled in Carrol v. United States  that individuals in motor vehicles do not have the same expectation of privacy as those in buildings.

The High Court concluded that people do not typically live in their cars or use them to store personal possessions. However, the Court ruled in California v. Carney that the motor vehicle exemption should also apply to motor homes that are capable of being moved.

Though the motor vehicle exception does exist for police, car searches without a warrant still require officers to have probable cause that the vehicle contains evidence of a crime, the fruits of a crime or items used to commit a crime. Similarly, no warrant is required if police officers have probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains contraband, such as when they smell marijuana smoke emanating from the vehicle.

Additionally, if an individual is lawfully arrested, a subsequent search of their vehicle may not require a warrant. In addition to motor homes, court decisions have extended the scope of the motor vehicle exception to trucks, trailers pulled by trucks, boats, houseboats and airplanes.

When Police Must Obtain a Search Warrant

Under the protections that provided by the Fourth Amendment, law enforcement must obtain search warrants in the following circumstances:

  • When they have not been granted permission to conduct a search
  • When the motor vehicle exception does not apply
  • When items have not been left in plain sight
  • When no exigent circumstances for a search exist

Before a judge or magistrate issues a search warrant, police must provide direct evidence that establishes probable cause for a search. This evidence could include the testimony of law enforcement officers, information provided by witnesses or informants, and physical evidence.

Terry Stops

Courts have generally given police latitude in situations when the safety of officers or members of the public may be in jeopardy. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Terry v. Ohio that criminal suspects and their vehicles could be searched for weapons based upon reasonable suspicion rather than probable cause.

Can Police Search an Impounded Vehicle?

While police cannot stop and impound a vehicle simply in order to conduct a search, they are permitted to search lawfully-impounded vehicles. Vehicles may be searched even if they have been impounded because they were parked illegally, and law enforcement are also allowed to search stolen vehicles that have been recovered.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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