When and how can law enforcement search my vehicle?

United States citizens are protected from unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The amendment states:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, 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.”

Without probable cause, a search warrant, or consent of the owner, law enforcement officials are not legally allowed to conduct a search of one’s property. Although seemingly straight forward, the applicability of this right and the extent to which it can be applied, raises questions in situations regarding vehicles.

For a vehicle to be searched, law enforcement must ask for consent or have probable cause to believe criminal activity has been or is currently being facilitated. However, ambiguity arises regarding the use of probable cause.

Minor traffic violations such as speeding usually don’t provide substantial reason for a car to be searched but can often lead to a search. If law enforcement sees or smells contraband, the will claim they have probable cause and a warrantless search be conducted. The actions of the driver or passengers may also be construed as indications of criminal activity as well, which could result in the probable cause needed to search the vehicle without consent. Often, people get nervous during interaction with law enforcement. Nervousness alone is not typically not enough to establish probable cause.

If an initial search is supported by probable cause, a minimally invasive search will be conducted. If the driver has consented to a search, law enforcement can search the entire vehicle in areas such as the glove box, under seats, center console, trunk, etc. If during this search, law enforcement develops further suspicion, they can do a more intrusive search. However, if the search is executed based on consent of the driver, the driver can rescind their consent at any time, stopping the search. However, initial consent cannot be rescinded if law enforcement develops probable cause based on what has already been search.

Neither the initial denial of consent or later rescinding one’s consent can be used as probable cause to believe illegal activity is taking place.

If the search is being facilitated based on probable cause to believe criminal activity has taken place, the search must be limited to searching only logically reasonable places where there would be an indication of this criminal activity. For example, if the police have substantial reason to believe the vehicle’s driver is in possession of a recently stolen 60” flat screen TV, they would not be warranted to search the glove box. However, if the search is being conducted on suspicion of possession of contraband, there’s very few places law enforcement is not entitled to look.

Withholding consent to search, does not mean one is immune to their car being searched. However, without probable cause, law enforcement cannot force a warrantless search. Probable cause can give reason to search virtually the entire car and all it’s contents.

The law surrounding vehicular search and seizure is confusing, and to fight for one’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches, a skilled criminal defense attorney will be able to determine if your rights were violated. If you or a loved one is facing charges stemming for a vehicular search, contact one of the relentless criminal defense attorneys at Berry Law.

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