While you’re on the road as a driver, there are many laws that you must obey, and law enforcement officers are also governed by a strict set of laws. When it comes to searching your vehicle, police must adhere to specific rules. Being familiar with what cops are permitted to do can help to protect your rights as a driver.
Do the Police Need a Warrant to Search Your Car?
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects against unlawful search and seizure. If a police officer were to search your car without a valid reason or your permission, she would be violating your Fourth Amendment rights. However, if she has reason to believe that you have committed a crime, she does not need a warrant in order to search your vehicle.
If a police officer asks to search your car, there are only five circumstances in which she has the right to do so without a warrant. First, if you agree to the search, law enforcement may move forward. Second, in the instance of “plain view,” an officer may conduct the search if she can see something like drugs or illegal weapons without entering your vehicle. Third, if an officer arrests you, the search is considered “incident to arrest,” and is permitted. Fourth, if the police officer has probable cause to suspect a crime, she is allowed to search the vehicle. Lastly, “exigent circumstances,” in which a police officer has reason to believe evidence is about to be destroyed, permit a warrantless search of your vehicle. If a police officer does have a warrant, you must let her search your vehicle.
Read More: Who Issues a Search Warrant?
Can the Police Search Your Trunk Without a Warrant?
Unless a police officer has a warrant, he needs probable cause to search your trunk. Probable cause requires that the police have a real reason to believe you have committed a crime. Police officers must make a judgment call when on duty as to whether they have probable cause. If you feel that they have violated your rights, you may later file a complaint with your local department of Internal Affairs or an independent police auditor.
Are the Police Allowed to Open Your Car Door?
In a 2013 South Carolina Supreme Court case, McHam v. State, the court ruled that a police officer opening an individual’s car door once that individual had been pulled over constituted a search of the vehicle. Therefore, it is permitted for an officer to open the car door provided one of the five allowed circumstances for a warrantless search is met.
If a police officer has probable cause or your permission, he does not need a warrant to search your car. Law enforcement is also allowed to search your trunk and open your vehicle door without a warrant if they have probable cause.
Danielle Smyth is a writer and content marketer from upstate New York. She holds a Master of Science in Publishing from Pace University. Her experience includes years of work in the insurance, workers compensation, disability, and background investigation fields. In addition to being the content writer and social media manager for Alliance Worldwide Investigative Group, she has written on legal topics for a number of other clients. She owns her own content marketing agency, Wordsmyth Creative Content Marketing (www.wordsmythcontent.com) and enjoys writing legal articles and blogs for clients in related industries.