The Automobile Exception


Individuals on the roadway typically have a basic understanding of what law enforcement can and cannot do as it relates to searching your vehicle. Many people are familiar with the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from the unreasonable search and seizure of their personal belongings and generally requires the police obtain a warrant in order to search or seize you or your belongings. But did you know that there are exceptions to that rule? More specifically, one of the most common ones relates to your rights on roadways. It is known as ‘the automobile exception.’

What is the Automobile Exception?

The automobile exception (also called the motor vehicle exception) is an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s general rule mandating law enforcement obtain a search warrant in order to search a person’s property. Under this exception, a person’s vehicle may be searched without a warrant when suspected contraband is readily mobile and it is not reasonable to take the time to obtain a warrant as the contraband could be taken away due to its mobility. This exception allows law enforcement to search a motor vehicle if the officer has probable cause to believe the vehicle contains contraband. But, this does not entirely override the Fourth Amendment. In most cases, a law enforcement officer can only search a motor vehicle pursuant to the automobile exception if the driver was pulled over for a reasonable traffic stop. Law enforcement cannot simply pull over vehicles for no reason other than a hope that they develop probable cause that the vehicle contains contraband.

And then, even with probable cause and application of the automobile exception, law enforcement may only look in parts of the vehicle or containers therein where suspected contraband may reasonably be located. Granted, when law enforcement suspects there are drugs in the vehicle, law enforcement could look in any part of the vehicle or container inside the vehicle, including luggage. On the other hand, if law enforcement is looking for a sex-trafficking victim, law enforcement would not be allowed search a purse or small bag. Instead, they would only be able to look in places that could reasonably contain a sex trafficking victim. The obvious example in this case is the trunk.

What Happens if I am Charged with a Crime due to the Automobile Exception?

If you are charged with a crime based on evidence law enforcement found in a search of your vehicle, it is crucial to contact an attorney immediately. A few factors could play into charges possibly being dropped or lessened. The burden of proof for proving the automobile exception falls on law enforcement, and there are many different situations where the automobile exception cannot be used, including:

  • If the traffic stop was made illegally. Any subsequent charges based on evidence found in the vehicle will likely be dismissed.
  • If law enforcement did not actually have probable cause to believe your vehicle contained contraband. Then it was illegal for law enforcement to search your vehicle without a warrant and any charges based on evidence found during that illegal search will likely be dismissed.
  • If law enforcement cannot prove that the situation made it difficult to obtain a warrant before searching your vehicle. Then any charges based on evidence found during that illegal search will likely be dismissed.

Berry Law’s Criminal Defense Attorneys

The details of ‘the automobile exception’ are complicated and highly technical. Berry Law’s team of dedicated criminal defense attorneys have experience demonstrating to judges how the automobile exception was improperly relied upon by law enforcement. The results of our efforts have led to many dismissals of very serious felony charges against our clients. If you or somebody you know has criminal charges stemming from a search of your vehicle, contact our team today at (402) 466-8444 to schedule a consultation.

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