For police to legally search your car, a number of circumstances must be met. Because it is mobile and comparatively easy to dispose of, a car has fewer protections against search than a home. Your permission or a valid reason is needed. A warrant is rarely needed.
Consent Might Be Necessary
If you are stopped for a routine traffic offense (not an arrest), the police officer might ask you for permission to search your car. You do not need to give them this permission. In fact, you should clearly but politely state that you do not consent to a search. If you do give permission, the results of the search would be admissible in court even without probable cause.
However, if asked, you and your passengers do need to step out of the car.
Evidence in Plain Sight
If you are stopped for a routine traffic offense and a police officer looking through a window sees something illegal in the car, like an open container of alcohol or illegal drugs, the officer can do a pat-down search of you and search the passenger compartment of your car. This includes the console and the glove compartment.
The officer can take the evidence and it is admissible in court.
Probable Cause a Crime Has Been Committed
A police officer can search your car if he or she has probable cause to believe there is evidence of a crime in your car. An officer’s hunch is not enough. Even answers to simple questions can be probable cause, so you should invoke your right to remain silent and refuse to answer questions.
Probable cause can also come from 911 calls, confidential informants, or officer observations of activity outside or inside the vehicle. A 2013 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court supports an “alert” to the presence of contraband by a police dog as probable cause.
Minor traffic violations are not considered probable cause.
After an Arrest
If an arrest has been made, the police can search the body of the person who was arrested for weapons or illegal goods. In addition, the police can search the car and its contents, including the trunk, if there is a reasonable belief that they hold illegal or stolen goods.
Safety of the Officer
If a police officer reasonably believes that his or her safety is in jeopardy, usually because of possible concealed weapon, the officer can make a protective search of the car.
If the police have towed and impounded your car, they have the authority to conduct a comprehensive search of the vehicle including locked compartments or containers. However, police cannot tow and impound your car for the sole purpose of searching it.
Call a Lawyer
The law surrounding searches of cars and other vehicles can be complicated. Plus, the facts of each case and the law in each state are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed, specific information, please contact a lawyer.