Is a cop allowed to search my vehicle without a search warrant? The short
answer is… yes. Here are the “warrantless” exceptions
outlined by the courts over the years.
This well-known exception is that of probable cause. A police officer may
search your vehicle without a warrant if the following requirements are met:
- There is probable cause to believe that there’s evidence of a crime
located inside the vehicle
- The vehicle is “readily mobile”—meaning it could take
off and get away.
This exception justifies an officer’s search of every part of the
vehicle for the object(s) in question—including locked and unlocked
containers. Once the object is found, however, the warrantless search
must stop, unless otherwise legally permitted to do so.
Terry Frisk of a Vehicle
This exception has to do with the officer protecting himself from a possibly
armed and dangerous suspect. The “Terry Frisk” exception allows
for the legal “frisk”, or pat down/surface search, of a suspect’s
outer clothing and sometimes the suspect’s vehicle passenger compartment.
To do this, the following must be in place:
- Police must have lawfully stopped the vehicle that’s the subject
of the frisk.
- The officer must have a reasonable belief that the driver or passenger
is dangerous, and may immediately obtain control of a weapon.
Note that with this exception, police can search the passenger compartment
(including the trunk area of SUV’s, minivans, buses and hatchbacks)
and any unlocked containers where weapons could be grabbed.
Like the name implies, this warrantless search may be conducted when the
individual with authority over the vehicle gives their voluntary consent
to the police search. There are two requirements for the search to be valid:
- The person giving the consent must do so voluntarily—not by coercion
- The person giving the consent must be in apparent authority over the vehicle
(your buddy in the passenger seat couldn’t give it for you)
This type of search can be limited by the person giving the consent, and
may be revoked by that person as well.
When a vehicle has been lawfully taken into custody by the police, it may
be inventoried according to standard policy. No probable cause or reasonable
suspicion is required for this type of search. Three requirements must
be met, though:
- The vehicle must have been lawfully impounded
- A standardized inventory policy must exist
- The inventory must be conducted in accordance with that policy
Inventory searches may not go beyond what is reasonable or necessary to
discover valuables or other items for safekeeping.
Search Incident to Arrest
This exception allows an officer to perform a warrantless search during
or immediately after a lawful arrest. The search is limited to the person
arrested and the immediate domain of that person—where they might
gain possession of a weapon or destroy evidence related to the arrest.
For this to be lawful,
- There must be reasonable belief that the arrestee might gain access to
the vehicle at the time of search, or
- The vehicle contains evidence related to the arrest.
If you believe your vehicle was searched by police in an unlawful manner,
contact the Kyle Law Firm today to speak to one of our
criminal defense attorneys.