You’ve probably heard about criminal cases that began with an officer pulling over a driver, and resulted in law enforcement claiming to have found something illegal during a search of that person’s vehicle. That uncovered evidence is often the basis for criminal charges.
It’s important to know, however, that law enforcement officers can not go through your vehicle on a whim. In fact, unlawful searches can result in inadmissible evidence – and potentially a flawed criminal case. To help you be better informed, here are some situations in which an officer may be able to legally search your vehicle.
You give consent
This scenario is fairly straightforward. If an officer asks you if it’s OK to look in your vehicle, and you say yes, the resulting search is most likely completely legal. If that’s the case, anything the officer turns up could be used against you in court. It’s why many attorneys and legal rights advocates recommend you always tell an officer you do not consent to a search of your vehicle.
They have a search warrant
If officers have a valid search warrant, signed by a judge, they can search your vehicle without your consent. Because obtaining a search warrant takes time, this is generally less common in situations where an officer pulls someone over.
There is probable cause
If an officer has reason to believe there is evidence of a crime within the vehicle, they may be able to search for it – whether you consent or not. In addition, if potential evidence of the crime is in “plain view,” officers may be able to seize it, then use that discovery for a further search of your car.
After a lawful arrest
If officers arrest someone in the car, they might be able to search for evidence related to the reason for the arrest. If authorities then impound the car, they may also have an opportunity to lawfully go through the vehicle as part of the inventory process.
For officer safety
If officers believe they are in danger and they need to search the vehicle in order to protect themselves, they may do so. One example of this could be they think there is a weapon hidden in the car.
Knowing your rights
Everybody makes mistakes, including law enforcement officers. Usually those errors are unintentional. For example, it’s possible officers believed they had probable cause when in fact they did not, and the resulting search was therefore unlawful. But just because someone makes a mistake doesn’t mean your rights go out the window.