What You Need to Know About Vehicle Searches

By Bo Kalabus
Office: 972-562-7549
24 Hour Jail Release 214-402-4364

I am often asked under what circumstances the police are allowed to search a car. Most of the questions center on searches made following stops for speeding or other traffic code violations. Usually a warrant is required to search your property. An automobile, however, is an entirely different animal then say a house, for example. There is an exception to the warrant requirement for automobiles. The main rationale for having the warrant exception is since cars are mobile, and they could depart before an officer can get a warrant from a judge to search the vehicle. Another thought behind the exception is that since cars are regulated by state laws, and are also on public streets, drivers should have a reduced expectation of privacy compared to their homes.

The automobile exception to the warrant requirement has two parts:
1. If the police have probable cause that the car contains something illegal like a prohibited weapon or drugs, then they may search the car. One circumstance I hear most often is an officer after approaching a vehicle smells marijuana from the inside of the car and that triggers the probable cause for the search. Under this part of the exception, the officer can only search the part of the car where what he is looking for may be found. So if a police officer pulls a driver over for speeding and smells marijuana, he may search the entire car for the drug, including any containers like the center counsel, glove box, or purses. But if he has probable cause to believe that you have an illegal knife in the car, he could only search where the knife could be hidden and not, say, in a pack of cigarettes.

2. If an officer makes a lawful arrest of the driver of the car, he may make a warrantless search of the passenger compartment of the car. This is called a search incident to arrest.
Keep in mind an officer may always search your car without a warrant if you consent to the search. Sometimes police will pose the question with the implication that you do not have the legal right to refuse. However, you can always refuse to consent. Another approach is the officer may tell you that if you cooperate with him and consent, things will be easier on you, but in reality nothing could be further from the truth.

Also, if you are being arrested following a traffic stop, your car could be towed and searched pursuant to an inventory search. The police department has to have a policy regarding how to conduct an inventory search. The rationale behind an inventory search is to protect the police from claims property was stolen or lost down the road. The inventory search is not supposed to be a rouse to allow police to rummage through a car, however, police can go through your car to create an inventory.

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