Police can always search a vehicle if they have a lawful search warrant to do so. Absent a warrant, authorities can still conduct a search in defined circumstances.
For example, police can search your car or truck if you consent. Further, police can conduct a search if they have “probable cause” to believe the vehicle contains contraband or evidence of a crime.
Search and seizure laws regarding cars stem from Fourth Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution. The Amendment provides that you have the right to be free from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” This constitutional right has been written into law in every state of the nation.
There are times when authorities search a vehicle without the legal right to do so. In these cases, you can try to suppress any evidence that the police found. Suppression means that a judge can exclude the evidence from the case.
Exclusion means that any charges could get:
- reduced, or
- dismissed altogether.
California law follows the general rules that police can search a car if:
- they have a valid warrant, or
- a certain exception to the warrant requirement applies.
If the State gathers evidence against these rules, then you can file a motion to suppress. This is:
- done to exclude any evidence that was gathered unlawfully, and
- done pursuant to Penal Code 1538.5 PC.
Our criminal defense attorneys will highlight the following in this article:
- 1. When are police allowed to search a motor vehicle?
- 1.1. Search warrants for vehicle searches
- 1.2. Consent to a vehicle search
- 1.3. “Probable cause” to search a car
- 1.4. Vehicle searches incident to lawful arrests
- 1.5. Vehicle searches for weapons incident to lawful detention
- 1.6. Inventory searches of cars
- 2. What are the remedies if police conduct an unlawful search?
1. When are police allowed to search a motor vehicle?
Police can always search a vehicle if they have a legal warrant to do so.
They can even search a car without a warrant in certain situations. Circumstances allowing a warrantless search are when:
- you (the driver), or someone with control over the vehicle, consent to a search,
- the police had consent to search,
- the police have “probable cause” that the car holds evidence of criminal activity,
- they arrest you from the vehicle (search incident to arrest),
- the police temporarily detain you in the car, and
- they lawfully impound the vehicle and conduct an “inventory search.”
1.1. Search warrants for vehicle searches
Police can search a car if they do so pursuant to a valid search warrant.1
A warrant is valid if it:
- is signed by a judge,
- is based upon probable cause,
- describes specifically the vehicle to be searched, and
- describes specifically the property or thing that is being searched for.2
1.2. Consent to a vehicle search
Police can still search a vehicle without a warrant if they have the consent to do so from you if:
- you are the driver of the car, or
- you have control of the vehicle.3
Note that this consent is only valid if it is freely given. It is illegal for the police to force or coerce you to consent in any way.4
Example: Wayne is pulled over by police for having a broken taillight at night. He has a bag of marijuana under his seat.
As Wayne is reaching for his license and registration, the police officer pulls out his gun, points it at Wayne, and demands that Wayne let him look in the car. Wayne complies and ends up being charged with possession of a controlled substance for having the marijuana.
Here, the charges will get dismissed because the officer search of Wayne’s car was illegal. It may have seemed as if Wayne consented because he complied with the officer, but the officer forced him to do so.
1.3. “Probable cause” to search a car
Authorities may search a vehicle if they have “probable cause” to believe there is evidence of a crime in the vehicle.5
This is known as the “vehicle exception” to the general rule that says searches require a warrant. There are two main reasons for the exception. These are:
- cars can be moved quickly, and thus, evidence can get lost while a warrant is obtained, and
- you have a reduced expectation of privacy in a car as compared to, say, a home.6
“Probable cause” means that:
- police know certain facts, and
- the facts would justify the issuance of a warrant to search the car.7
Probable cause can be based upon things like:
- reliable information (such as information gained via an undercover agent) that the car holds evidence of a crime,
- facts that a police officer personally observes, and
- suspicious acts by the driver of the car or any passengers in the car.
Example: George and Robert, both 20, are sitting in a car parked at a home for seniors. When a police car approaches, Robert, the driver, speeds away, leading the police on a high-speed chase.
Once the police catch up with them, they search the car and find a loaded gun hidden under a seat. Robert is charged with possession of a loaded firearm.
The gun can be used as evidence against Robert. The suspicious behavior of the youths – leading the police on a high-speed chase when they approached – created probable cause for a search of their car. Probable cause is also supported because the police found the car in an area dedicated to senior living.
1.3.1. Scope of a vehicle search
Under the vehicle exception, law enforcement can search the entirety of a vehicle. This includes:
- the trunk,
- the glove compartment, and
- any closed containers inside the car (such as bags, boxes, and suitcases).8
As to containers, note that this is only true if it is reasonable that the container can hold the contraband that the police are looking for. For example, an officer cannot search an aspirin bottle if they have probable cause that there is a rifle in the car.9
Evidence that is in plain view is legal for the police to search as well.
1.3.2. Meaning of a vehicle
The vehicle exception applies to both cars and trucks.
States also say that it may apply to
- bikes,10 and
- mobile homes.11
1.4. Vehicle searches incident to lawful arrests
If you are an occupant of a vehicle, police can search the car absent a warrant if they are arresting you.12
In this situation, though, authorities may only search:
- your person, or
- the area within your immediate control.13
Example: Police arrest Rodney for driving on a suspended license. While he is handcuffed and sitting in the back of the patrol car, they search his vehicle. The police find cocaine in the trunk.
Here, Rodney cannot be convicted of a drug offense based on the cocaine. The search of his car was unlawful even though he was under arrest. This is because the police found the drugs in the trunk, which was an area of the car not under Rodney’s immediate control at the time of his arrest.
1.5. Vehicle searches for weapons incident to lawful detention
In some circumstances, police can search a vehicle, without a warrant, if they are detaining you in the car.14 Detaining you is short of arresting you.
Police can conduct a search, though, only to protect their own safety. This means police in a search incident to lawful detention may only:
- search if they believe you are dangerous and can gain control of weapons, and
- search areas of the passenger compartment where a weapon may be hidden.15
Note that police can stop and frisk you if they have reasonable suspicion you are doing – or have done – something illegal.
1.6. Inventory searches of cars
Authorities can conduct a vehicle search, with no warrant, if:
- they have impounded the car, and
- are carrying out an inventory search.16
These searches are carried out in order to:
- protect the vehicle owner’s property,
- insure against claims of lost property, and
- protect police from danger.17
Example: Steven is arrested for DUI. He is taken into custody, and police order a tow truck to take his van to an impound lot, as is authorized under DUI law.
But before the van is impounded, an officer conducts a thorough inventory search. He ends up finding large amounts of both cocaine and cash. Steven is charged with drug possession for sale on top of his DUI charges.
Here, the cocaine and cash may be admitted into evidence against Steven. This is because they were found pursuant to a lawful inventory search
2. What are the remedies if police conduct an unlawful search?
Sometimes police search a vehicle without any of the authority discussed above. In these cases, you may challenge any evidence that the police found. Challenging the evidence means to try to get it excluded from your criminal trial.
If the evidence is crucial to a prosecutor’s case, exclusion could mean that:
- any charges in the case get reduced, or
- any charges get dropped altogether.
If you are the victim of an unlawful search, you can try to exclude evidence by filing a “motion to suppress.” This is a legal document that argues to a judge that certain evidence was gathered:
- via an unreasonable search and seizure done without a warrant, or
- through a search done with a warrant, but the warrant was not valid.
If the judge agrees with the motion, they can suppress the evidence and remove it from the case.
For a discussion specific to California, please see our page Can police in California search my car without a warrant?
- Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure – Rule 41, Search and Seizures.
- See same.
- Schneckloth v. Bustamonte (1973) 412 U.S. 218. See also Commonwealth v. Ortiz, 478 Mass. 820 (2018).
- People v. McKelvy (1972) 23 Cal.App.3d 1027. See also Commonwealth v. Ortiz, 478 Mass. 820 (2018).
- Carroll v. United States (1925) 267 U.S. 132. See also United States v. Paul Rubio-Sepulveda, 237 F.Supp. 3d 1116 (2017).
- California v. Carney (1985) 471 U.S. 386.
- United States v. Ross (1982) 456 U.S. 798. See also United States v. Goncalves, 642 F.3d 245 (2011).
- United States v. Ross (1982) 456 U.S. 798.
- See same.
- People v. Allen (2000) 78 Cal.App.4th 445.
- California v. Carney (1985) 471 U.S. 386.
- Arizona v. Gant (2009) 556 U.S. 332. See also United States v. Paige, 870 F.3d 693 (2017).
- United States v. Johnson, 913 F.3d 793 (2018).
- Michigan v. Long (1983) 463 U.S. 1032. See also United States v. Torres-Castro, 374 F.Supp. 2d 994 (2005).
- Michigan v. Long (1983) 463 U.S. 1032. See also United States v. Santiago-Ramos, 991 F.Supp. 2d 318 (2014).
- Colorado v. Bertine (1987) 479 U.S. 367. See also United States v. Hernandez, 297 F.Supp. 3d 1139 (2017).
- See same.