Do Police Need a Warrant to Search My Vehicle?

When it comes to contact with law enforcement, you have legal protections provided by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Your Fourth Amendment right is designed to protect you against unlawful privacy intrusion by the government, and specifically against any unlawful search and seizure conducted by a law enforcement officer. This is a right that often comes into play when law enforcement stops your vehicle when they suspect you have committed a crime, including driving under the influence (DUI).

When it comes to law enforcement searches, officers must generally have a valid search warrant. However, vehicle searches are unique under the law, which means that even if police do not have a search warrant, they can still search your vehicle, provided any of the following applies:

  • Consent – Law enforcement will have the right to search your vehicle if you consented to a search. However, consent must be given voluntarily and not as a result of coercion.  
  • Probable cause – If a law enforcement officer has probable cause, then they can lawfully search your vehicle. Probable cause is any objective justification that you may be connected to a crime. For example, an officer who notices the smell of alcohol on a driver’s breath has probable cause to suspect they are driving under the influence, and therefore a valid basis for a lawful search of your vehicle. Probable cause may also involve an officer who sees weapons, drugs, or contraband connecting you to a possible crime when those materials are in plain view inside your vehicle.
  • Lawful arrests – Law enforcement officers may have grounds to search a vehicle if they are conducting a lawful arrest of an occupant, such as in the case of arresting an individual with a warrant. These searches may be limited to where an arrestee is within a vehicle, or when it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence pertaining to a crime for which they are being arrested.
  • Temporarily detainment – If law enforcement temporarily detain a vehicle occupant, for which they must have reasonable suspicion that the individual is dangerous or has access to weapons in the vehicle, they may conduct a vehicle search.
  • Inventory search – When vehicles are impounded by law enforcement, which may occur when a motorist drives on a suspended license, law enforcement has the right to conduct an inventory search.

Although a warrant is not always required for a vehicle search, meeting certain criteria is. That’s why it becomes critical to investigate all circumstances surrounding a stop, investigation, and arrest, especially if officers claim to have had probable cause. Under California law, vehicle searches are exempt from warrant requirements like those in circumstances involving homes or computer hard drives because vehicles can be moved out of a jurisdiction and because there is a reduced expectation for privacy. Still, any facts collected by officers must meet the standard of probable cause in order for a search to be considered lawful.

Your Defense Against Unlawful Search & Seizure

Determining when law enforcement officers have a valid basis to conduct a vehicle search is an important part of any defense strategy. That’s because law enforcement officers who fail to abide by rules and procedures for conducting lawful searches and seizures can violate your Fourth Amendment right. When this happens, any evidence they obtain through an unlawful search could be thrown out of your case, which can make it exceedingly difficult for prosecutors to gain a conviction, and often provides the basis for a dismissal of charges.

At Lessem, Newstat & Tooson, LLP, our criminal defense lawyers are passionate about protecting the rights of clients, and ensuring that law enforcement officers are held to the highest standard possible. When they fail to treat you fairly and execute an unlawful search, it can form the basis of a successful defense. Learn more about your rights and options following a criminal charge involving a vehicle search when you contact us for a free consultation.