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Can Police Search My Car Without a Warrant?

January 13, 2016 | Written by Dan Margolis

In our last post, we discussed the Fourth Amendment’s search warrant requirement and its relation to our expectations of privacy from government intrusion. As we said then, whether police must obtain a search warrant often depends on the location or object to be searched.

For example, it is more likely that officers would need a warrant to search a person’s home than his or her vehicle, especially if they pull over the vehicle on the street. But the warrant requirement is not absolute. The law contains several exceptions that allow police to search your car without getting a warrant first, seize what they find inside and use it as evidence against you.

Here are five circumstances that excuse police from the search warrant requirement with regard to your vehicle:

1. You consent to the search.

2. The officer has probable cause to believe there is evidence of crime inside the vehicle.

3. The officer reasonably believes a search is necessary for his or her own safety. In other words, the officer has reason to believe there is a hidden weapon inside the car.

4. You have been arrested, and the proposed search is related to the arrest.

5. Police have towed and impounded your car, even if it was impounded for something unrelated to the alleged crime, like parking violations.

Before searching your vehicle, police must pull you over. The law also restrains their power to do this. Officers must have a reasonable and articulable suspicion that the motorist has violated a traffic law. However, a minor offense like speeding is unlikely to justify a warrantless search on its own.

When police fail to follow the rules, that abuse of power puts all of our rights at risk. This is why courts must toss out illegally obtained evidence.

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