When Are the Police Allowed to Search your Car?

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When Are the Police Allowed to Search your Car?

by ICC on March 10, 2020
March 10, 2020 / by / in

Generally, police officers are not allowed to search your car without a warrant, your permission or a valid reason to do so. They can search it without a warrant if they have probable cause to believe there is incriminating evidence inside. The courts generally give the police more leeway when searching a car than searching a residence. 

Arrest for traffic offenses

The laws in most states authorize police officers to arrest drivers for traffic offenses, such as failure to wear a seat belt or speeding. In such situations, they may have legal justification for subsequently searching a car and in other cases, they may not. 

The validity of a subsequent search depends on the circumstances. If the reason for the stop is a minor offense, such as speeding, a reasonable officer would be unlikely to search your car without a significant reason. 

Searches incident to arrest

When the police arrest someone, they are able to conduct a limited search of a car without having a warrant. This is to obtain evidence related to the arrest or ensure officer safety. For instance, the police may conduct a search to look for illegal drugs if they’re arresting you for drug possession. 

If the arrestee is already in handcuffs in the back of the police car, he or she isn’t able to reach for a weapon and so the police can’t use officer safety to justify a search. Police brutality lawyers often deal with cases where officer safety is used to justify actions, such as the use of excessive force. 

A case of unconstitutional search

In the case of Arizona vs. Gant, police officers apprehended Rodney Gant for driving with a suspended license. They handcuffed him, placed him in the squad car and went on to search his vehicle, where they found a bag of cocaine and a handgun. 

The Arizona Supreme Court eventually found that the search was unconstitutional because Gant had left his car voluntarily, the search was not directly linked to the arrest, and it, therefore, violated the Fourth Amendment. 

Consent searches

The police may ask a driver for consent to search a car if they are unsure whether they have the legal right to do so. The driver’s consent must be freely and voluntarily given. 

Contacting a local attorney listed at USAttorneys.com will help you if you believe you were coerced into allowing the police to search your car. Consent that is coerced is invalid and an attorney can help you to prove this. 

Inventory searches

Police have to follow strict procedures when it comes to an inventory search. If they lawfully impound your vehicle, they can make an inventory of the items in it. The reason why they have impounded the car doesn’t matter. It may be for something as serious as car theft or something as simple as a parking violation. 

When a car is impounded, the search is not designed to gather evidence but to allow the police to protect the contents. It also allows the police to safeguard themselves against any claims that they mishandled or stole items. If they come across incriminating evidence in the course of an inventory search, it can be used against you. 

 Why you need legal help

Whether a car search is considered legal depends very much on the facts of your case. As seen in the case of Rodney Gant, a search may be dismissed if it’s considered a violation of the Fourth Amendment. A qualified and experienced attorney will be familiar with the law and able to help you to understand your legal options.