LEGAL GUIDE
Written by attorney Stephen Andrew Hamer | Oct 29, 2013

VEHICLE SEARCH: When Can The Police SEARCH YOUR CAR?

Vehicle Search Incident To Arrest:

WHEN CAN THE POLICE SEARCH YOUR CAR?

Y ou’re driving down the road and you see the flashing lights of a police car behind you. You pull over. Officer walks up to the car and says “License, registration, and proof of insurance." (I don’t think they usually say “please").

Now, let’s say… you do NOT have (or cannot find) license or insurance card or registration; OR your license or registration or insurance is invalid, suspended etc. The officer could write you a citation, and you drive away pissed off.

But what if he insteadplaces you under arrestfor the minor traffic violation??

(This is not common, but it does happen).

Possibility #1: Officer pats you down and finds nothing illegal on you. He handcuffs you and secures you inside his patrol car. He then walks back to your car and proceeds to search it (without your consent). Under the front seat, he finds marijuana.

Was this search valid? Would judge likely grant your attorney’s motion to suppress the marijuana because the search was invalid?

The search was probably INVALID, and marijuana would likely be SUPPRESSED.

Possibility #2: Officer pats you down and finds a gun in your pocket. He handcuffs you, puts you in patrol car, and proceeds to search your car (without your consent). Under the front seat, he finds marijuana.

Was this search valid? Would judge likely grant your attorney’s motion to suppress the marijuana because the search was invalid?

The search was probably VALID, and marijuana would likely NOT be SUPPRESSED.

Possibility #3: Officer pats you down and finds nothing illegal. He does not handcuff you, and he says to you “stand right here next to your car, and don’t move." He then proceeds to search your car (without your consent). Under the front seat, he finds marijuana.

Was this search valid? Would judge likely grant your attorney’s motion to suppress the marijuana because the search was invalid?

The search was probably VALID, and marijuana would likely NOT be SUPPRESSED.

WHAT MAKES A SEARCH of your vehicle INCIDENT TO ARREST (a search of the car after arresting you) VALID OR INVALID?

The law on this has changed over time, and is not simple to say the least. However, I will try to summarize the absolute basics as best as I can.

IF he has reasonable suspicion that evidence of the crime that you were arrested for could be in the car,

Officer's search of car is likely VALID.

What if he has NO reasonable suspicion that evidence of the crime that you were arrested for could be in the car…?

Officer's search will likely only be VALID...

IF you are close enough to the car and could potentially reach into the car and dispose of evidence.

SO . . .

If you are arrested for a non-serious non-violent offense like a traffic violation, and he has secured you far enough away from your car, his warrantless non-consensual search is likely invalid.

If you are arrested for a non-serious non-violent offense like a traffic violation, and he has NOT SECURED you far enough away from your car, his warrantless non-consensual search is likely valid.

If you are arrested for an offense such as weapon possession, drug possession, or theft, his search is likely valid even if you are secured far from your car. (Because there IS reasonable suspicion that weapons, drugs, or items stolen would be in your car. It doesn’t matter if you are secured or not).

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