You might have wondered if a police officer can search your car anytime you're pulled over. Well, under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, there are limits to when an officer can search your car. The Fourth Amendment protects individuals from illegal searches and seizures. This means that police officers can't randomly search cars or search every car they pull over. Generally, an officer needs a search warrant in order to search a car, but police can search a car without a warrant under certain circumstances. FindLaw's Vehicle Searches section focuses on when police can search a vehicle without a warrant. There are additional sections on what to do during a traffic stop and a section dedicated to frequently asked questions about traffic arrests.
When a Warrant Isn't Necessary
In the context of a vehicle search, an officer can legally search a car without a warrant under a few general circumstances. The most straightforward situation is if the driver consents to the search. The consent must be voluntary, and it's a person's right not to consent to a search, even if the officer tries to make you believe otherwise.
Another circumstance where an officer can search the car without a warrant is if the officer has probable cause to believe that there is evidence of a crime in the car. It's important to note that the evidence must be related to the reason you were pulled over. For example, if an officer pulls you over for not fully stopping at a stop sign, the search would have to be for something that would be related to that crime. If, however, the officer reasonably believes that there is a weapon in the car, the officer can search the car because reasonable suspicion that there is a weapon in the car is another situation in which an officer can search a car without a warrant.
Finally, if the driver is arrested, the officer can search the car without a warrant. This is known as a search incident to a lawful arrest. It's also worth mentioning that if a car is impounded, the police have the right to conduct a full and thorough search of the car. However, police don't really impound cars just to search them because it involves a lot of paperwork.
Plain View Doctrine
Another exception to the warrant requirement for a search is the plain view doctrine. This exception is just as it sounds: if an officer sees evidence out in the open, he can seize the evidence without a search warrant. For example, if an officer pulls a driver for running a red light, and sees a bong in the backseat, the officer can seize the bong because it's in "plain view." Plain view includes more than just seeing. If an officer or hears evidence of a crime, that evidence can also be considered in "plain view." Once the plain view doctrine applies, the officer also has the right to conduct a lawful warrantless search for other evidence related to the same crime because the officer now has probable cause to believe that there is other incriminating evidence in the car.
Hiring a Lawyer
If you've been charged with a crime after a traffic stop or vehicle search, it's in your best interest to contact a criminal defense attorney.