The short answer is yes. In certain situations, the police can search your car without a warrant. Generally, the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prevents unlawful search and seizure. This means that arbitrary police searches are unlawful. However, there are some exceptions. Police can search your car without a warrant for these five reasons:
You consented to the search.
This may seem obvious, but it is important to recognize this exception to a warrant requirement. It is very easy to be overwhelmed when you are pulled over and ultimately be persuaded into consenting to a search of your car. When you voluntarily consent to a search of your car, you waive your Fourth Amendment right.
What’s more, any person with the apparent right to use the car may consent to a search, and any evidence found may be used against other owners or occupants. The fact that the person who gave the consent wasn’t authorized doesn’t matter. What matters is that the person who gave the consent appeared to have authority to do so. For example, if your spouse doesn’t actually own the car, but gives consent to search, that is valid and any evidence found in the car can be used against you and/or your spouse.
The officer has probable cause.
Probable cause means the police have clear facts or evidence to believe you are involved in a criminal activity. A “hunch” that you were involved in a criminal activity is not enough to establish probable cause. If the officer has probable cause, he or she may search your car without a warrant. This “probable cause exception” to the requirement of a warrant is also known as the automobile exception.
The plain view exception.
If the police are lawfully on the premises (e.g. not trespassing) and they observe an illegal item in your car, such item can be seized. In other words, if incriminating evidence is in plain view, the police can go into your car and take such evidence. The theory behind this exception to the warrant requirement is that the government does not want police walking away from a crime that they saw with their own eyes.
The emergency exception.
There are two scenarios that you should know when it comes to emergency warrantless searches of your car. First, the police may search your car without a warrant if criminal evidence is likely to disappear before the officers could obtain such warrant. For example, evidence under your fingernails typically falls in this category because it can be washed away. This scenario is very rare.
Second, if there is a “true” emergency, the officers may search your car. For example, if officers get reports of someone driving around shooting out his or her car window while driving, and they see the suspect’s alleged vehicle, they may search it for guns to stop any further shootings.
They can search your car incident to an arrest.
If you are lawfully arrested, the police may search your car. However, there are several tricky rules to know when it comes to searches incident to arrest.
First, the police may not search your trunk during a search incident to an arrest. The police may only search the area within the control of the driver as a search incident to the arrest of the driver. As a matter of law, the entire passenger area of the car is considered “in control of the driver” and may be searched after a lawful arrest.
Second, once the arrested driver is under the complete control of the police, and secured in the squad car, the police may only search the car when they have reason to believe an item connected to the arrest is still in the car.
Third, if the vehicle has been impounded (and is in the custody of police) the police may search the entire car.
Generally, an arbitrary automobile stop is unconstitutional unless the officers have reasonable suspicion that a law has been violated. However, police may set up roadblocks without reasonable suspicion to serve a particular problem (such as drunk driving), but cars must be stopped on a neutral basis (i.e. every fifth car is stopped).
To summarize, there are times when police officers may search your car without a warrant. Remember that you have the right to say no to a search because if you say yes, that is valid consent.
For further information, you can contact Joffe Law, P.A. at 954-723-0007. With nearly 30 years of experience in criminal law, attorney David Joffe understands the complexity of criminal cases.
Our criminal defense attorneys are dedicated to fighting for your rights, freedom, and reputation.