Can the Police Search My Car?
Answers from a Fort Worth Criminal Defense Law Firm
Most people are aware that the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America protects them from unreasonable or unwarranted searches and seizures of their person and their property. If you are walking down the street, minding your own business, a police officer who shoves you to the ground and pats you down has clearly violated your constitutional rights. But what about your vehicle? Is this considered your own private zone protected by the Fourth Amendment?
To a certain extent, yes, your automobile is your private property and has Fourth Amendment protections, but they are not the same that apply to you or your home. If the question is simply, “Can the police search my car?” the answer would be, in its simplest form, “Yes.” But when you take all the possible variables into consideration, the answer is not so clear and can vary on a case-by-case basis, depending largely on the reason the police made the traffic stop in the first place.
There are three types of vehicle searches allowed after a stop without a warrant:
- Search incident to arrest: An officer can search the area immediately around the driver if the police have previously established a reason for arresting the individual. If you were driving a minivan, for example, and were arrested for a DUI, the police could get away with looking around your seat the probably the passenger seat but would be barred from scrounging around the other rows of seating, where you cannot reach while driving.
- Inventory search: If you have been arrested and your car is going to be impounded, the police will look through the entirety of your vehicle to create a catalogue of your property found within the vehicle. This intrusive process meant to protect them from liability in case you claim something went missing while the car was impounded.
- Probable cause search: An entire search of your vehicle and yourself can be conducted during a traffic stop if the police have probable cause to believe evidence is in the vehicle somewhere. The evidence they are looking for must pertain to the reason they pulled you over. For example, if they are looking for an armed robbery suspect in a vehicle that fits your vehicle’s description, they can detain or arrest you and look throughout your car for a firearm or stolen goods.
The police can also conduct a warrantless search of your vehicle if evidence of a crime, any crime, is in plain view. This is to say that if the police walk up to your car for a burnt out headlight and see a container of heroin needles in the backseat, they can detain you and perform a full search. Plain view, oddly enough, also applies to scent; if you roll down your window and a pungent scent of marijuana wafts out, they have “plain view” rights to search your car for the illegal substance.
Officers can also conduct a search if you let them. This is known as a consent search and it really should never happen; if the police ask you if they can search your car, you have the right to say no. To avoid conflict, you can respectfully tell them that you are pressed for time and simply cannot lose valuable minutes waiting for them to scrounge through your car. Lastly, of course, the police can search your vehicle all they want if they get a warrant first.
For more information regarding your rights during traffic stops and police searches, contact The Law Office of Samuel R. Terry. You can speak with the firm’s Fort Worth criminal defense lawyer during a free case evaluation to learn your options after what you suspect could be an unlawful arrest.