Can the Police Search Your Car Without a Warrant?
If the police searched your car, they probably didn’t have warrant.
Naturally, the question becomes whether the police violated your rights by searching your car without a warrant. Unfortunately, the answer—like the answer to many legal questions—is that it depends.
This article provides a general overview of when the police can search a vehicle without a warrant. The law on this issue is complex, so if the NYPD searched your car without a warrant, contact Cody Warner, P.C. for a free consultation.
The 4th Amendment and Search Warrants
The requirement that the police have a warrant to perform a search is based on the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The 4th Amendment says:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, 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, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
It’s important to note that the 4th Amendment protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures, not warrantless searches and seizures. Courts have interpreted the 4th Amendment to require the police to have a warrant to search certain areas, like a home. However, searches of other areas—like a car—do not necessarily require a warrant.
Why Warrants Aren’t Needed for a Car
In Carroll v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a warrant is not needed for the police to search a car. This decision was based on two major considerations.
First, we have a lower expectation of privacy in our automobiles compared to our homes.
Second, because cars are mobile, a suspect could drive away and destroy the evidence before the police get a warrant. For instance, if the police believe that a car contains drugs, if they can’t seize and search the car until they obtain a warrant, the suspect could drive away and dump the drugs. By the time the police get a warrant and find the car, the drugs would be gone.
The Police Still Generally Need Probable Cause to Search a Car
Although the police do not need a warrant to search a car, they still need probable cause to search. Specifically, they need probable cause that their search will recover crime evidence.
For instance, if you are pulled over for a DUI, that doesn’t give the police probable cause to conclude there is evidence inside your vehicle linked to the crime of a DUI. Therefore, if the police then searched your vehicle and found a gun, the gun may be suppressed as evidence because the police did not have probable cause to search.
On the other hand, if the police receive a 911 call reporting that you just murdered someone with a gun and you are fleeing, the police could have probable cause to search your vehicle to look for the murder weapon.
One major exception is that the police may, for officer safety purposes, search within your “grabbable area.” For instance, if the police are seizing you while you are sitting in the driver’s seat, the officers have the right to search any area you could reach. This is because, in theory, you could have a weapon in that area, and the officer is entitled to make sure he secures the area for officer safety.
Another common exception is when the police perform an inventory search. An inventory search occurs when the police search your vehicle at the precinct to catalogue all the items inside of it. To be legally proper, the police must follow a strict protocol when performing an inventory search. If the protocol is not followed, you may be able to get the items suppressed from evidence.
Vehicles searches present tricky legal issues that require seasoned legal representation. Many cases involving car searches are won or lost based on whether your counsel convinces the court that the police performed an illegal search. If your lawyer can prove that the search was illegal, then the evidence seized can be suppressed, meaning that the prosecution can’t use it as evidence.
When your lawyer gets evidence suppressed, the prosecution often drops the charges.