Rights During a Police Vehicle Search

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Any rights you have during a police automobile search stem for your Fourth Amendment constitutional right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. Generally, the police need a warrant to search and seize any of your belongings. However, there are several exceptions when an automobile is involved.

Automobile Exception

  • The automobile exception says that if police have probable cause to believe that a vehicle contains contraband or evidence of a crime, they can search the vehicle without a warrant. Similarly, if an officer has probable cause to believe that the automobile itself is contraband (i.e. a vehicle used for transporting cocaine), the officer can search and seize the automobile without a warrant.

Scope of Search

  • If police have probable cause to search the vehicle, the automobile exception gives them the right to search the "entire vehicle." This includes the trunk and all containers within the vehicle that might contain the object for which they have probable cause to believe exists. If the officer has probable cause to believe that a dead body is in the vehicle, the officer cannot search a tiny container (where a dead body clearly could not be). Notably, the passengers belongings might be searched as well under the automobile exception.

Plain View Exception

  • Even if an officer does not have probable cause to search a vehicle under the automobile exception, the officer can seize contraband or evidence of a crime if that evidence is in "plain view." For example, if an officer pulls you over for a routine traffic stop and sees a bag of cocaine sitting on your dash board, you vehicle can be searched without a warrant.

Search Incident to Lawful Arrest

  • If an officer arrests you based on probable cause, he can search any area within your "wingspan." Supreme Court cases have held that your wingspan includes the passenger compartments (such as the glove box) but not the trunk.

Consent

  • Police officers can search an automobile without a warrant if the driver or passenger gives consent. However, the officer's search is limited by the scope of the consent. If the driver says "you may only search my trunk," then the officer can in fact only search the trunk.

References

  • Photo Credit creativecommons.org; 91rs
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