Police need a valid search warrant to search your vehicle—UNLESS one of the following five (5) circumstances applies:
- You have given your consent to a search of your vehicle,1
- The police have “probable cause” to believe the car contains contraband or evidence of a crime;2
- The police are lawfully arresting an occupant of the car—and either the arrestee is within reaching distance of the interior of the car, or it is reasonable to believe the car contains evidence about the crime for which s/he is being arrested;3
- The police are temporarily detaining an occupant of the car (as part of a Terry "stop-and-frisk"), and reasonably believe that s/he may be dangerous and have access to weapons stored in the car;4 OR
- The car has been lawfully impounded by law enforcement (as may happen if you commit Vehicle Code 14601 driving on a suspended license), and they are conducting an “inventory search."5
Search and seizure laws regarding cars originate in the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution6—and Article I, Section 13, of the California Constitution.7
These constitutional sections provide that all citizens have the right to be free from “unreasonable searches and seizures.”8
Here are some examples of situations in which police may lawfully search your car:
- After hearing from a police informant that you are a leader in a criminal street gang, the police obtain a warrant from a judge allowing them to search your car for evidence of the gang's activities.
- Police observe your car cruising through an area known for drug sales and then witness what appears to be a drug transaction conducted through the window of your car. They follow you and pull you over for driving after dark without headlights (Vehicle Code 24250). Then they search your car and find a large bag of cocaine in the glove compartment.
- You are a truck driver and are pulled over for suspicion of driving an overweight vehicle. You consent to go to the nearest weigh station with the officer to have your vehicle weighed. During the weighing process, the officer discovers victims of human trafficking in one of the containers on the truck.
And here are some examples of vehicle searches that would NOT be lawful:
- A state trooper sees that you are speeding and puts on his siren to pull you over. He then sees you reach down and appear to place something under your seat before pulling over. If there is no other reason to believe there is evidence of a crime in your car, the trooper may not search your car.
- After you fail a DUI breath test, you confess that you have been drinking at a bar—and the police officer arrests you for DUI. You willingly follow him to the patrol car. His partner may not search your car at this point.
Remedies for an unlawful vehicle search
- you are the victim of an unlawful vehicle search by police, and
- you are charged with a crime based on evidence found in the search,
then you and your criminal defense attorney can challenge the evidence.
In order to help you better understand when police can legally search your car or truck, our California criminal defense attorneys will address the following:
If, after reading this article, you would like more information, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.
Police can legally search your car in one of the following situations:
- When they have obtained a valid search warrant from a state or federal judge;
- When you or someone else with control over the vehicle has given them consent to search it;10
- When they have “probable cause” to believe the car contains evidence about a crime;11
- When they are arresting an occupant of the car—and either that person is capable of reaching into the car, or it is reasonable to believe the car contains evidence about the offense of the arrest;12
- When they are temporarily detaining an occupant of the car, and reasonably believe that s/he may be dangerous and have access to weapons stored in the car;13 OR
- When they have lawfully impounded the car and are conducting an “inventory search.”14
Search warrants must be signed by judges.15 They are typically issued to grant police the right to search for and/or seize items that either
- may be evidence that a felony has been committed, or
- may be evidence that a particular person has committed a felony.16
In order to be valid for a police search of a car, a search warrant must be based on “probable cause” and must describe specifically both
- the vehicle to be searched, and
- the property or thing that is being searched for.17
Example: Rick and Maria, two detectives, have received an anonymous tip that a suspect named Aaron is transporting and selling child pornography.
The tipster describes in detail Aaron's operation, including the car he drives and the printing shop he visits to obtain copies of illegal items. Rick and Maria then stake out the printing shop for a day and see a car matching the description of Aaron's car visit it several times.
So Rick and Maria take this evidence to a judge and ask for a warrant granting them permission to stop Aaron's car and search it outside the printing shop. The judge grants the warrant.
When Rick and Maria carry out the valid search of Aaron's car, they do indeed find child pornography materials in his trunk. These materials can be used as evidence when they charge Aaron with a crime.
Even if the police or other law enforcement don't have a warrant to search your vehicle—they may still search it legally, and use anything they find as evidence against you, if you consent to the search.18
But a search of your car is only valid under this rule if you give your consent voluntarily—not if the police coerce or force you to consent in any way.19
Example: Wayne is pulled over by police for running a stop sign late at night. He has a baggie of marijuana in a tote bag on the passenger 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 open the tote bag for him and show him its contents. Wayne complies and ends up being charged with possession of a controlled substance for having the marijuana.
But the charges will not stick because the search of Wayne's bag was illegal. It may have seemed as if Wayne consented because he opened the bag for the officer—but it is not legitimate consent if he gave it at gunpoint.
Importantly, evidence from a vehicle search may be used against a defendant even if s/he wasn't the one who personally consented to the search—as long as the owner of the vehicle or someone who had legitimate possession and control over it consented.20
Example: Mindy and Sharon are riding home in Sharon's car, with Sharon driving, after a night out at a bar. Both of them are quite drunk. They get stopped at a DUI checkpoint.
An officer at a checkpoint smells liquor on Sharon's breath and asks for permission to search her vehicle. Terrified at the thought of facing California DUI charges, Sharon says yes. The officer then finds a bag of cocaine under the seat that belongs to Mindy.
The bag may be used as evidence in a drug possession case against Mindy. Even though Mindy didn't give permission to search the vehicle, Sharon did—so the search was legal.
Cars, trucks, and other vehicles are special in that (unlike houses, computer hard drives, etc.) they may be searched without either a warrant or consent—as long as the officer has “probable cause” to believe there is evidence of a crime in the vehicle.21
This is known as the “vehicle exception” to the general rule that searches require a warrant.
There are two reasons why vehicles are treated differently in this regard:
- First, because they can be moved so quickly—and so by the time an officer obtains a warrant to search a car, the person who owns the car may already have had a chance to move it out of the jurisdiction.
- Second, because they are heavily regulated through the vehicle licensing process—and so there is a reduced expectation of privacy in a car compared to, say, a home.22
But what does “probable cause” mean? Put simply, it means that police may legally search a car if they know of facts that would justify the issuance of a warrant to search the car.23
“Probable cause” for purposes of searching a vehicle can consist of:
- Reliable information (such as that obtained from eyewitnesses, undercover informants, etc.) that the vehicle contains evidence or contraband;
- Facts or circumstances personally observed by an officer at the time s/he observes the vehicle (for example, when the officer catches sight of a weapon or drugs in plain view inside the car); or
- Suspicious actions by the driver or passengers of the car—such as evading the officer, or “furtive gestures” indicating that they are trying to hide something.24
Example: George and Robert were sitting in a parked car in a “lover's lane” where police rarely observe two males together. When a police car approaches their car, 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 marijuana hidden under a seat.
The marijuana can be used as evidence against George and Robert. Their suspicious behavior—leading the police on a high-speed chase when they approached—created probable cause for a search of their car.25
However, police are not allowed to decide that just anything is “suspicious conduct” that gives rise to probable cause and justifies a vehicle search.
In particular, “furtive gestures” that are interpreted as an attempt to hide contraband are probably not enough to create probable cause—at least in the absence of other reliable information indicating the presence of contraband.26
Example: A police officer spots Martin's car speeding on the freeway and pulls him over. As the car pulls over, the officer sees Patricia, who is riding on the passenger side, put her arm over the back of the seat, then lean down toward the floor before sitting up again.
Interested in this suspicious gesture of Patricia's, the officer goes around to her side of the car and looks inside. He sees some marijuana stems and seeds, orders Patricia and Martin to exit, and does a more thorough search of the car. The car turns up more marijuana.
But the marijuana possession charges against Patricia and Martin will not stick because the officer's vehicle search was illegal. Patricia's “suspicious” movement was not enough to create probable cause for the officer to search her side of the car.27
Scope of a vehicle search under the "vehicle exception"
If law enforcement has probable cause to search your car, truck, or other vehicle, they are allowed to search the entire vehicle—including:
- The glove compartment,
- The trunk, and
- Any closed containers inside the car (such as bags, boxes, or suitcases).28
However, this is only true to the extent that these places or containers are reasonable places to look for the contraband that the officers expect to find. If a given container in a car is too small to hold the item they are looking for, then they may not search it.29
Example : Border patrol officials stop Armen in his truck near the Mexican border. Based on anonymous tips, they have reason to believe Armen is smuggling illegal immigrants into the country.
The police search Armen's truck and don't find any smuggled immigrants. But they do open a lunchbox in the cab of the truck and find heroin inside it.
There was no way that a container that small could contain the contraband the officers had probable cause to search for—illegal immigrants. Thus, there was no probable cause to search the lunchbox.
As a result, Armen cannot be convicted of transportation of a controlled substance based on the heroin as evidence.
What counts as a "vehicle"
The “vehicle exception” that allows police to search vehicles on the basis of probable cause doesn't only apply to cars, trucks, etc. It also applies to:
- mobile homes—but only if they either are being driven on public roads or are parked in a place where one usually parks vehicles (e.g., a parking lot instead of a trailer park);30 and
Another situation in which police may search your vehicle without a warrant is if they are putting an occupant of the car under arrest.32
But there are limits on a vehicle search incident to a lawful arrest. Specifically, it must be the case that either:
- The person being arrested is within reaching distance of the passenger compartment of the car at the time of the search (and so may be capable of grabbing a weapon or destructible evidence); OR
- The police reasonably believe that the vehicle contains evidence of the crime for which the suspect is being arrested.33
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—and find cocaine in a jacket pocket.
But Rodney may not be convicted of a drug offense based on the cocaine. The search of his car was unlawful even though he was under arrest—because he was not capable of reaching into the car at the time of the search.34
Law enforcement may also search your car without a warrant when you or someone in it are being “lawfully detained” (but not necessarily arrested).35
However, the scope and purposes of the search are even more limited in these situations. A vehicle search incident to lawful detention can only be conducted to protect the safety of police officers on the scene.36
So police in a search incident to lawful detention
- may only search areas of the passenger compartment where a weapon may be placed or hidden, AND
- may only carry out this search if they reasonably believe, based on specific facts, that the suspect is dangerous and may be able to gain control of weapons (this is similar to the “reasonable suspicion” standard that applies to a so-called “Terry stop”).37
Finally, police may search your car without a warrant if they have impounded the car and are carrying out an inventory search.38
Inventory searches are not part of a criminal investigation. Instead, they are carried out in order to:
- protect the vehicle owner's property while it is in police custody,
- insure against claims of lost property, and
- protect police from danger.39
Example: Steven is arrested for DUI while driving his van. 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.
The cocaine and cash may be admitted into evidence against Steven—because they were found pursuant to a lawful inventory search.40
If you are accused of a crime after an illegal search of your vehicle—then you have the right to challenge any evidence that came from that search.
And if that evidence is key to the prosecution's case against you, then you may be able to get the charges against you reduced or even dismissed altogether.
Your first move, if you are the victim of an unlawful vehicle search, will likely be to file a Penal Code 1538.5 motion to suppress evidence.41
A 1538.5 PC motion to suppress is a request to the judge to throw out any evidence that was either:
- Obtained through an unreasonable search and seizure done without a warrant, or
- Obtained through a search that was done with a warrant—but where the warrant was deficient or the search was carried out in an unconstitutional way.42
According to San Fernando Valley criminal defense attorney John Murray43:
“Most illegal police searches of cars are done without a warrant. The police will try to claim they had ‘probable cause' to conduct the search, but in a lot of cases that's just not true. Your attorney can use a Penal Code 1538.5 motion to suppress to challenge any evidence obtained in the search that the prosecutor tries to introduce.”
Call us for help…
For questions about when police may search your car in California, or to discuss your case confidentially with one of our California criminal defense attorneys, do not hesitate to contact us at Shouse Law Group.
We have local criminal law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.
For more information on Nevada search and seizure laws, please see our page on Nevada search and seizure laws.
1 Schneckloth v. Bustamonte (1973) 412 U.S. 218, 219. (“It is equally well settled that one of the specifically established exceptions to the requirements of both a warrant and probable cause is a search [including a search of a vehicle] that is conducted pursuant to consent.”)
2 See Carroll v. United States (1925) 267 U.S. 132, 155. (“It follows from this that, if an officer seizes an automobile or the liquor in it without a warrant, and the facts as subsequently developed do not justify a judgment of condemnation and forfeiture, the officer may escape costs or a suit for damages by a showing that he had reasonable or probable cause for the seizure.”)
3 Arizona v. Gant (2009) 556 U.S. 332, 351. (“Police may search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant's arrest only if the arrestee is within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search or it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest. When these justifications are absent, a search of an arrestee's vehicle will be unreasonable unless police obtain a warrant or show that another exception to the warrant requirement applies. The Arizona Supreme Court correctly held that this case involved an unreasonable search.”)
4 United States v. Long (1983) 463 U.S. 1032, 1049. (“Our past cases indicate then that protection of police and others can justify protective searches [of vehicles] when police have a reasonable belief that the suspect poses a danger, that roadside encounters between police and suspects are especially hazardous, and that danger may arise from the possible presence of weapons in the area surrounding a suspect. These principles compel our conclusion that the search of the passenger compartment of an automobile, limited to those areas in which a weapon may be placed or hidden, is permissible if the police officer possesses a reasonable belief based on “specific and articulable facts which, taken together with the rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant” the officers in believing that the suspect is dangerous and the suspect may gain immediate control of weapons.”)
5 People v. Bertine (1987) 479 U.S. 367, 371-72. (“By contrast, an inventory search [of a vehicle] may be “reasonable” under the Fourth Amendment even though it is not conducted pursuant to a warrant based upon probable cause. In Opperman, this Court assessed the reasonableness of an inventory search of the glove compartment in an abandoned automobile impounded by the police. We found that inventory procedures serve to protect an owner's property while it is in the custody of the police, to insure against claims of lost, stolen, or vandalized property, and to guard the police from danger. In light of these strong governmental interests and the diminished expectation of privacy in an automobile, we upheld the search. In reaching this decision, we observed that our cases accorded deference to police caretaking procedures [including inventory vehicle searches] designed to secure and protect vehicles and their contents within police custody.”)
6 U.S. Const., amend. IV. (“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects [and vehicles], 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.”)
7 Cal. Const., Art. I, Sec. 13. (“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects [and cars] against unreasonable seizures and searches may not be violated; and a warrant may not issue except on probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons and things to be seized.”)
8 See endnotes 6 and 7 above.
9 Penal Code 1538.5 PC – Motion to . . . suppress evidence. (“(a)(1) A defendant may move for the return of property or to suppress as evidence any tangible or intangible thing obtained as a result of a search or seizure on either of the following grounds: (A) The search or seizure without a warrant [including a warrantless vehicle search] was unreasonable. (B) The search or seizure with a warrant was unreasonable because any of the following apply: (i) The warrant is insufficient on its face. (ii) The property or evidence obtained is not that described in the warrant. (iii) There was not probable cause for the issuance of the warrant. (iv) The method of execution of the warrant violated federal or state constitutional standards. (v) There was any other violation of federal or state constitutional standards.”)
10 Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. at 219, endnote 1, above.
11 Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. at 155, endnote 2, above.
12 Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. at 351, endnote 3, above.
13 United States v. Long, 463 U.S. at 1049, endnote 4, above.
14 People v. Bertine, 479 U.S. at 371-72, endnote 5, above.
15 Penal Code 1523 PC – Definition [of search warrants, including for vehicle searches]. (“A search warrant is an order in writing, in the name of the people, signed by a magistrate, directed to a peace officer, commanding him or her to search for a person or persons, a thing or things, or personal property, and, in the case of a thing or things or personal property, bring the same before the magistrate.”)
16 Penal Code 1524 PC – Issuance [of search warrants, including for vehicle searches]. (“(a) A search warrant may be issued upon any of the following grounds: . . . (4) When the property or things to be seized consist of any item or constitute any evidence that tends to show a felony has been committed, or tends to show that a particular person has committed a felony.”)
17 Penal Code 1525 PC – Issuance; probable cause; supporting affidavits; contents of application. (“A search warrant [for a police search of a vehicle] cannot be issued but upon probable cause, supported by affidavit, naming or describing the person to be searched or searched for, and particularly describing the property, thing, or things and the place to be searched.”)
18 See Schneckloth v. Bustamonte (1973) 412 U.S. at 219, endnote 1, above.
19 See People v. McKelvy (1972) 23 C.A.3d 1027, 1034.
20 See People v. Clark (1993) 5 Cal.4th 950, 980. (“The consent of one person with common or superior authority over the area [car or other vehicle] to be searched is all that is required; the consent of other interested parties is unnecessary.”)
21 See Carroll v. United States (1925) 267 U.S. at 155, endnote 2, above.
22 California v. Carney (1985) 471 U.S. 386, 391. (“The reasons for the vehicle exception [allowing warrantless searches of cars], we have said, are twofold. 428 U.S., at 367, 96 S.Ct., at 3096. “Besides the element of mobility, less rigorous warrant requirements govern because the expectation of privacy with respect to one's automobile is significantly less than that relating to one's home or office.” Ibid.”)
23 United States v. Ross (1982) 456 U.S. 798, 809. (“In short, the exception to the warrant requirement established in Carroll -the scope of which we consider in this case-applies only to searches of vehicles that are supported by probable cause. FN11 In this class of cases, a search is not unreasonable if based on facts that would justify the issuance of a warrant, even though a warrant has not actually been obtained.”)
24 People v. Superior Court (Kiefer) (1970) 3 Cal.3d 807, 816-19.
25 Based on the facts of People v. Martin (1956) 46 Cal.2d 106.
26 People v. Superior Court (Kiefer), endnote 24, above, at 818. (“The difficulty is that from the viewpoint of the observer, an innocent gesture can often be mistaken for a guilty movement. He must not only perceive the gesture accurately, he must also interpret it in accordance with the actor's true intent. But if words are not infrequently ambiguous, gestures are even more so. Many are wholly nonspecific, and can be assigned a meaning only in their context. Yet the observer may view that context quite otherwise from the actor: not only is his vantage point different, he may even have approached the scene with a preconceived notion-consciously or subconsciously-of what gestures he expected to see and what he expected them to mean. The potential for misunderstanding in such a situation is obvious. It is because of this danger that the law requires more than a mere “furtive gesture” to constitute probable cause to search [a vehicle] or to arrest.”)
27 Based on the facts of the same.
28 United States v. Ross, endnote 23, above, at 820. (“As we have stated, the decision in Carroll was based on the Court's appraisal of practical considerations viewed in the perspective of history. It is therefore significant that the practical consequences of the Carroll decision would be largely nullified if the permissible scope of a warrantless search of an automobile did not include containers and packages found inside the vehicle. Contraband goods rarely are strewn across the trunk or floor of a car; since by their very nature such goods must be withheld from public view, they rarely can be placed in an automobile unless they are enclosed within some form of container.”)
29 Same, at 824. (“The scope of a warrantless search of an automobile thus is not defined by the nature of the container in which the contraband is secreted. Rather, it is defined by the object of the search and the places in which there is probable cause to believe that it may be found. Just as probable cause to believe that a stolen lawnmower may be found in a garage will not support a warrant to search an upstairs bedroom, probable cause to believe that undocumented aliens are being transported in a van will not justify a warrantless search of a suitcase. Probable cause to believe that a container placed in the trunk of a taxi contains contraband or evidence does not justify a search of the entire cab.”)
30 California v. Carney, endnote 22, above, at 392-93. (“When a vehicle is being used on the highways, or if it is readily capable of such use and is found stationary in a place not regularly used for residential purposes-temporary or otherwise-the two justifications for the vehicle exception [allowing warrantless vehicle searches] come into play.FN2 First, the vehicle is obviously readily mobile by the turn of an ignition key, if not actually moving. Second, there is a reduced expectation of privacy stemming from its use as a licensed motor vehicle subject to a range of police regulation inapplicable to a fixed dwelling. At least in these circumstances, the overriding societal interests in effective law enforcement justify an immediate search before the vehicle and its occupants become unavailable.”)
31 People v. Allen (2000) 78 Cal.App.4th 445.
32 Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. at 351, endnote 3, above.
33 See same.
34 Based on the facts of the same.
35 United States v. Long, 463 U.S. at 1049, endnote 4, above.
36 See same.
37 See same.
38 People v. Bertine, 479 U.S. at 371-72, endnote 5, above.
39 See same.
40 Based on the facts of the same.
41 Penal Code 1538.5 PC – Motion to . . . suppress evidence [including evidence from an unlawful search of your car].
42 See same.
43 San Fernando Valley criminal defense attorney John Murray is one of Southern California's leading experts on criminal law and is especially experienced with DUI and traffic stops. He has seen more illegal vehicle searches by police than he can count—and knows exactly how to work with his clients to get the illegitimate evidence thrown out of court. He works extensively at the Van Nuys, Ventura, San Fernando, LaX Airport, Santa Clarita, Lancaster, Beverly Hills and Los Angeles Metropolitan courthouses.