When can an officer search my vehicle?

Under the Fourth Amendment, the U.S. Constitution guarantees that every person shall be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Throughout time, the courts have interpreted this to mean that the police cannot invade our “reasonable expectations of privacy” without “probable cause.”

Given this standard, the general rule is that, without first obtaining a warrant, an officer may only conduct a search if he has probable cause that a crime is being committed, or if the person consents to the search. However, the courts have recognized that sometimes this “probable cause” standard can be unworkable in society. With that in mind, the courts have created some exceptions to this probable cause standard. The first exception is what is known as the “search incident to arrest” exception. In these types of cases, if a police officer is arresting a person for a crime, and if they have a reasonable suspicion that the person’s vehicle may contain evidence of this crime, they can search the vehicle. This exception is most often cited in driving under the influence of drug cases. If a police officer arrests an individual for DUI involving drugs, and they have a reasonable suspicion that those drugs may still be in the vehicle, they can legally search the entire vehicle to look for those drugs.

The second exception is known as the “inventory” exception. This allows for a police officer, or government agent, to search a person’s vehicle after impound as part of an inventory process. The sole purpose of this search must be to inventory the content’s of the vehicle, NOT to look for incriminating evidence. However, if incriminatory evidence is found as part of a valid inventory search, the evidence CAN be used against the person.

The third, and final, exception is called the “exigent circumstances” exception and can encompass a wide variety of circumstances. Under the exigent circumstances exception, courts will weigh the stated reason for the search against the privacy interests that the individual had in the item searched. Some examples of when courts have found that an exigent circumstance exists include: when police officers entered a home following a fleeing suspect; when police officers entered a home when they believed that someone inside was in imminent danger; and when fire-fighters entered a home to fight a fire. Courts rarely accept an argument that something constitutes an “exigent circumstance” unless public safety and/or imminent harm to individual is involved. If none of the above three exceptions apply to the case, the police must either have probable cause or have a warrant to search the vehicle.