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Can the Police Search My Vehicle?

My clients often come to me and say that police searched their vehicle when they were arrested under suspicion of DUI or some other criminal charge. Typically, the police officer will arrest my client, place them in the backseat or away from the vehicle in handcuffs, and search their vehicle. If anything illegal is found, additional charges may be filed. My clients will ask "is this legal"?

Before giving a definite answer, let's take a look at the history of this issue. In 1980, the US Supreme Court decided US v. Belton. The Court held in Belton that police officers were allowed to search the vehicle of someone that was lawfully arrested. This 4th amendment search exception was justified under the doctrine of Search Incident to a Lawful Arrest. This exception allowed officers to conduct a contemporaneous search of the vehicle during a lawful arrest because the passenger compartment was under the immediate control of the arrestee. Immediate control, the Court held, was the area within which the arrestee could gain possession of a weapon or destroy evidence.

Unfortunately, the courts had construed Belton to mean that anytime someone was lawfully arrested, the inside of their vehicle could be search, because it was, in theory, under the immediate control of the arrestee – irrespective of an analysis of officer safety or destruction of evidence.

In 2007, the US Supreme Court overturned Belton. The court decided in US v. Gant that officers can search the vehicle of an arrestee under the Search Incident to a Lawful Arrest exception only in the following circumstances:

  • Police may search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant's arrest only if the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search; or
  • It is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest.

If these justifications are not present, the search of the vehicle may be unconstitutional, absent a warrant or some other exception to the warrant requirement. To fully protect yourself from these types of unconstitutional government intrusions, retain an experienced attorney that can protect your rights.

At my firm, Kern Law, APC, I offer experienced and dedicated counsel for the accused. Call my office or submit an online case evaluation form to schedule your free consultation with a San Diego DUI attorney!