When Can the Police Search Your Car? Fourth Amendment Rights

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects citizens from unlawful searches and seizures, which can apply to your person, home, business or car. Since the Constitution protects citizens from falling victim to an unlawful police search, it is important to know when the police can and cannot search your car, especially since the conditions for searching a person, home or car are somewhat different.

Consenting to a Police Search

Simply being pulled over does not automatically give the police any legal authority to search your car. If the police want to search your car they need your consent, probable cause or a warrant; otherwise, they are violating your constitutional rights. When a police officer is asking for “consent” to search your car, he or she is asking for your permission. You have every right to tell the police “no” if they ask you to consent to the search. The police will ask you to consent to a search if they do no yet have a warrant or probable cause, and by consenting to a search of your car you are also eliminating the need for a warrant, even if it is a situation in which they might have typically needed one.

Probable Cause to Search a Vehicle

Another way the police can search your car is if they have probable cause. Probable cause is when the police must have a reasonable belief that evidence or contraband will be found in the car, however, this must pertain to items that can be seen from a lawful location and are essentially in plain view; a police officer cannot move things around to find contraband. For example, if a person is pulled over and the police officer can see drug paraphernalia sitting on the seat, then they have probable cause to search your car. Another example of probable cause is if, when talking to you, the officer can clearly smell a strong odor of marijuana coming from you car.

Searching a Vehicle After an Arrest Has Been Made

Additionally, if the driver or any passengers in the car have been arrested, then the police can search your car, but are only allowed to look where the drive and passenger were sitting and anywhere in plain view. Unless your car has an open design the police are not permitted to search your trunk. Without your consent, they must have probable cause or obtain a warrant.

Search Warrants

Finally, if the police have obtained a warrant you must let them search your car, but even if they do have a warrant that permits them to look for a gun, for example, then they cannot look for it in someplace that would obviously be too small to hold it like a cigarette lighter. The glove box, for example, would be a spot they could search, and anything they found while looking for the gun, for example drugs, would be considered in plain view, so the police could charge that person with possession. The only other time the police are permitted to search you car is if there are exigent circumstances that lead the officers to believe evidence will be destroyed if they do not collect it immediately.


Remember, if you have been pulled over you do not have to consent to a police search, but if you do consent or the police have found probable cause or obtained a warrant, and you have been arrested as a result, it is important to contact a criminal defense attorney to help you fight these charges.