Can Your Car Be Searched Without a Warrant?

If you’re pulled over, can the police search your vehicle without a warrant? Unfortunately, this is not a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question. It depends on the situation you find yourself in.

There are several circumstances when the police are permitted to search your vehicle without a warrant. Here is a short list for reference:

  • You give consent to have your vehicle searched
  • A limited search under certain conditions for “officer safety”
  • A search for evidence of a crime that the officer has probable cause to believe has been committed in his/her presence.
  • If your vehicle is impounded the police will conduct a routine Inventory Search

Probable Cause

The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution provides that:

“[t]he right of  the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probably cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The motor vehicle exception was first established by the Supreme Court in 1925, in Carroll v. United States. The exception allows police offices to search vehicles without a warrant as long as there is probable cause. The legal rule is based on the ideas that there is a lower expectation of privacy in vehicles due to the regulations under which they operate.

The exception does not apply to vehicles parked on private property, as the vehicle is then protected by the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court ruled in the 2017 case Byrd v. United States that the motor vehicle exception does apply to people driving rental vehicles, even if the driver is not listed on the rental agreement.

Admitting to a crime or the visible presence of illegal drugs or weapons is enough to be considered probable cause. Other reasons an officer may have to search your car include the smell of marijuana, an open container of alcohol in plain view, or if the description of your car matches that of a car recently used in criminal activity.

Working With a Lawyer

If a police officer does not have probable cause to search your vehicle and asks for your permission, you have the right to decline or remain silent. If the officer searches your vehicle unlawfully, any illegally obtained evidence cannot be used in a case against you.

If you’ve been arrested and need legal representation, contact the lawyers at McCabe Coleman Ventosa & Patterson today. We have years of experience defending those charged with DWI, felonies, drug possession and more. Experienced and capable representation is only a phone call away.

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