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Can the police search my vehicle?

The Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution is designed to protect individual rights vis-à-vis the government by preventing unreasonable searches and requiring a warrant before a search is made. When people get stopped by police officers and have their cars searched, they naturally wonder: Can police conduct a warrantless search of a vehicle?

The United States Supreme Court has decided that officers can conduct a warrantless search of vehicle based on two main theories:

  1. The mobility of the vehicle makes it impractical to secure a warrant; and
  2. There is a diminished expectation of privacy when someone travels on the road in their vehicles.

The court has primarily focused on the mobility aspect to allow warrantless searches of vehicles.

If someone is lawfully arrested during a traffic stop, police can search the passenger compartment of the vehicle under the Search Incident to Arrest doctrine. This essentially means that for purposes of officer safety and to prevent the destruction of evidence, police can search an area within the immediate area of the arrestee – for example, the passenger compartment of the vehicle. Arizona v. Gant (2009) has recently ruled there must be a nexus between the search of the vehicle and arrest. The proposition, however, stands that police can conduct a warrantless search of the passenger compartment of a vehicle when there has been a lawful arrest.

The police may also be able to search the entire vehicle – trunk, containers in the vehicle, and any part of the vehicle if they have probable cause to do so. The idea is that police can search anywhere that a search warrant, if secured, would have allowed them to search.

Another thing to consider is that if the police conduct a lawful stop of a vehicle, and they notice something obviously incriminating, they can seize that item under the Plain View Doctrine. This doctrine is not considered a search because the person did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the item that was seized.

If you have been arrested or are under investigation from a vehicle stop, contact Kern Law, APC today. I have a decade of protecting the constitutional rights of my clients against unlawful government intrusions.