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When Can Police Search Your Car?

What Rights Do You Have When You Get Pulled Over?

Having a cop car pull you over is stressful, but you shouldn’t have to worry about an officer unlawfully searching your vehicle. The Fourth Amendment protects against unlawful search and seizure, which means that any arbitrary car searches conducted without a warrant are illegal. Courts have fewer strictures on vehicle searches, however, than home searches. People don’t expect the same levels of privacy in their car as their homes.

The leniency is due to the mobility of a vehicle. In cases of crimes, a car may disappear before a judge can issue a warrant. Several conditions may arise that give a police officer the right to search your vehicle.


If you have given the police consent, they may search your car, regardless of probable cause – the reason an officer would have to have to legally search your car. If an officer asks for consent, you are within your rights to refuse it. A search does not become invalid if you were unaware of your right to refuse consent. The consent to search must be voluntary. If an officer intimidates or harasses you into consenting, it is not a legal search.

Probable Cause

If the officer has probable cause – a reason to believe there is evidence of a crime in your vehicle – they may conduct a search. Examples of probable cause can include anything in plain sight, such as a bag of marijuana sitting on the passenger seat. Other types of probable cause can include the smell of drugs, your car matching the description of a getaway vehicle in a robbery, or the sounds of a captive struggling in the trunk.

Traffic violations, such as poor driving, deadlights, and speeding do not constitute probable cause without additional circumstances to back them up.


If the officer believes a search is necessary for their protection, they may conduct a search. This is often applicable in cases where an officer suspects a concealed weapon. In this case, the officer may not search any area that is too small to conceal a weapon, such as a cigarette lighter. If an officer pulls you over at night, you can turn on your overhead lights to remove any cause for suspicion of a weapon.

Search Warrants

If the officer has a valid search warrant, he or she has legal permission to search your vehicle. You must abide by a valid search warrant.

Search Related to Arrest

In the event of an arrest, an officer may search your car if it relates to the arrest. For example, if your arrest is for driving under the influence of drugs, the officer may search for possession of a controlled substance within your vehicle.

What to Do in the Event of an Unlawful Search

While there are several reasons for a legal car search, an officer cannot search your vehicle without justification. It can be hard to determine in an encounter with the police if they have probable cause or not. If you suspect an officer is illegally searching your vehicle, it is best to not argue and contact a lawyer.

If an officer seizes evidence in an unlawful search, it is not usable in court under the exclusionary rule. A lawyer can help litigate this illegal search and keep the courts from using improperly seized evidence against you.

If an officer conducts a legal search with a warrant on the grounds of one crime and finds evidence of another, then the plain sight rule of probable cause applies. The warrant may be to search for a weapon, but they can still charge you if they find evidence of illegal drugs in the process. If the police have searched your vehicle and you believe it was unlawful, be sure to explain these circumstances to your attorney or contact the Law Offices of David A. Breston now for your free consultation.