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When Can the Police Search My Car?

One of the most common questions that criminal defense lawyers hear – especially when there has been a recent encounter with police – is “when can the police search my car?”

 

Roadside stops by the police are probably the most frequent one-on-one interactions that most people will ever have with law enforcement, so you might think this is a question which can be easily answered. You would be wrong, and, in fact, when the police can and cannot search your car is indeed one of the more complex issues in criminal law, and one that has evolved over the years.

Your Fourth Amendment Rights Against Police Searches of Your Car

No doubt, you are interested in simply knowing when the police can and cannot search your car and not in a history lesson the law, but understanding the context for the legality of police searches is helpful for understanding why it is so complex.

 

In short, your protection from illegal police searches of your car is based on the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. This amendment, written in 1789, far precedes the development of automobiles and modern-day police procedures, so Supreme Court justices over the years have had to develop rules for when police searches of a car are legal or illegal.

 

Again, this is a complex topic requiring far more space than is devoted to it here – and in all cases you should consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney to discuss your particular circumstances – but here are a few pointers on the law.

Consent to Search Your Car

If the police ask you if they can search your car, and you say yes, then you have given them consent to search, and they may then legally do so. They cannot force you to give consent (i.e. point a gun at you while asking for consent), but remember that, if you validly waive your Fourth Amendment rights by giving consent to search, the search will in many cases be legal.

 

Remember, you have no obligation to give up your rights by giving consent to a search.

Plain View

If the police have a valid reason for stopping your car (i.e. you were speeding or committing some other traffic violation) and they can see contraband in “plain view” in your car (i.e. an open container sitting on your dashboard), then the police do have the right to seize the contraband as evidence against you.

Search Incident to a Lawful Arrest

Whether you are in your car or not, the police do have a right to search the area in your immediate “wingspan” (where you can reach) as part of a lawful arrest of you. The purpose for this rule is to prevent arrested suspects from destroying evidence of the crime for which they are being arrested or from reaching for weapons.

 

The critical aspect here though is that the justification for the lawful arrest must occur prior to the evidence being found in one of these searches (meaning the police can’t arrest a person for no reason, then search them to find the evidence supporting the arrest).

Probable Cause

Police also have a right to search you and/or your car if they have probable cause to believe that they will find evidence of a crime in the area they will be searching. This can’t be just a hunch, but instead the police must point to specific facts which justified this belief.

 

This is a high bar, and many pieces of seized contraband have been thrown out of criminal trials because the police did not have probable cause to conduct the search.

When Your Car Is Impounded

In some cases, the police may search the inventory of a car as part of the impoundment process. But exceptions apply here, and police may not abuse this process to get around the protections of the Fourth Amendment.

Experienced Criminal Defense in Your Oklahoma Criminal Matter

Oklahoma City criminal defense attorney Patrick Quillian is a former Oklahoma district attorney who relies on his years of experience in prosecuting cases to provide the best possible defense for all defendants. If you are facing criminal charges and/or investigation for a felony or misdemeanor in Oklahoma, contact the office of J. Patrick Quillian, Attorney at Law, today at 405.294.4448 to schedule a free consultation to see what his criminal defense team can do for you.