When can police search your car without a warrant?

On Behalf of | Oct 19, 2022 | Criminal Defense

Many of our basic rights and protections as Americans come from language included in the U.S. Constitution. The protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures” is included in the Fourth Amendment.

With some exceptions, that means law enforcement officers can’t search or seize property from your home without a warrant. The warrant, signed by a judge, must spell out what areas can be searched and what can be taken. They must have provided “probable cause” to a judge that they have reason to suspect evidence of illegal activity will be found.

What if you’re in your vehicle when stopped by police? That’s where things get a little fuzzy for many people. Law enforcement officers often stop someone for a traffic violation and then use the opportunity to look for evidence of things like drugs, stolen items and illegal weapons. Is that legal?

Supreme Court decisions have provided updates to the Fourth Amendment

It may be. The U.S. Supreme Court has made rulings over the years that have clarified the language in the constitution. In some cases, this has given law enforcement more authority. 

Cars weren’t around when the Fourth Amendment was written, but the Supreme Court decided in a case in the 1920s that officers could search a vehicle without a warrant if they had probable cause to believe it contained evidence of a crime or something illegal in itself. However, they must have a valid reason to stop the car in the first place.

The reasoning behind the vehicle exception was that because it could be easily moved (driven away), there wasn’t time to wait for a warrant. Further, they said, a person has less expectation of privacy while on a public road than in their home.

Even if an officer doesn’t have probable cause to search a vehicle in a routine traffic stop, they can seize items in “plain view.” The plain view doctrine is an exception to the Fourth Amendment protections whether you’re in your home or car.

That’s a lot to remember – and that’s just a cursory look at the laws around search and seizure involving vehicles. If you’re facing charges, it’s crucial that you have legal guidance to help ensure that no evidence is being used against you that wasn’t legally obtained.

FindLaw Network