The Fourth Amendment provides ""[t]he right of the people to bes, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation.." This means that the police cannot search you, your home or your things without a applying for a warrant signed by a neutral judge. That being said, there are significant exceptions to the warrant requirement. One major exception is for your automobile. .
Courts generally give police more latitude when it comes to searching cars. Under the "automobile exception", courts have ruled that due to the mobility of a vehicle, police can engage in warrantless searches of vehicles under certain circumstances. The Supreme Court has ruled that warrantless police conduct may comply with the Fourth Amendment, so long as it is reasonable under the circumstances.
So, when can police search your car? Generally, under the following circumstances:
- You have given the officer consent
- The officer has probable cause to believe there is evidence of a crime in your vehicle
- The officer reasonably believes a search is necessary for their own protection (a hidden weapon, for example)
- You have been arrested and the search is related to that arrest (such as a search for illegal drugs)
Automobiles may be stopped if an officer possesses a reasonable and articulable suspicion that the motorist has violated a traffic law. If the reason for the stop is a minor traffic offense like speeding, the officer likely isn’t permitted to search your car without more reason. However, if police arrest for conduct arising out of a traffic stop such as DWI, a search of your vehicle incident to arrest is permitted.
If the police have towed and impounded your car, they have the authority to search your vehicle. This search can be as comprehensive as the police wish, and will most likely include opening any locked compartments or boxes found within your car. The reason for your car getting towed and impounded does not matter. It could be for something as simple as a parking violation or as serious as a car theft.
Police cannot tow and impound your car for the sole purpose of searching it, however. Police are required to follow strict procedures when it comes to these types of searches.
Even if you are arrested for a minor traffic stop, the poilce goal is to get inside your car and search it for evidence of a more serious crime. Should you be the subject of a vehicle search by police and have questions, do not hesitate to call me at 504-304-2335. I answer questions about criminal matters from people everyday.