The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits arbitrary and unlawful search and seizure by the government and its agents. However, while generally a warrant is required for police to search your property, there are exceptions for cars and other motor vehicles. These exceptions are known as the “automobile exception” or the “Carroll doctrine” from the name of the U.S. Supreme Court case that first established the exception (Carroll v. the United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925)).
The main reason why automobiles are excepted is that since they are mobile, the theory is that they will be gone before a law enforcement officer can obtain a warrant from a judge to conduct a lawful search – thus presenting what is considered exigent circumstances. Another reason often given is that since we drive our vehicles on public roadways, drivers have a lower expectation of privacy while driving in their cars versus being inside of their homes, for example. Warrantless searches can and do often still comply with the Fourth Amendment so long as they can be considered reasonable under the circumstances.
All that being said, the general constitutional rule is that police can search your car without a warrant if probable cause exists to believe the car contains evidence of criminal activity. So, what constitutes probable cause?
Probable cause includes suspicious behavior, such as:
- What a law enforcement officer can see in plain view, such as a bag of drugs sitting out on a car seat – so yes, police can look through your car windows
- The driver’s behavior
- What the police can smell, such as the odor of marijuana
- Hearing a muffled voice shouting from the trunk / the sounds of a captive struggling in the trunk
- Driver’s face is injured or clothes are covered in blood
- Violating a traffic law, but not just speeding alone; cops are generally looking for things like driving too slowly, running a stop sign, driving the wrong way on a street, or other violations that indicate driver impairment
- Your car matches the description of a robbery getaway vehicle or a car involved in another type of recent crime
In addition to probable cause, police can search your car without a warrant if it is a search incident to arrest and/or if you give them permission. If the police have arrested you for any reason, they have the right to search your car for evidence of what they arrested you for and/or to make sure you do not have weapons that could be used against them. If you give the cops permission, they obviously can search your car without a warrant as well. The police are also entitled to search impounded vehicles without a warrant as comprehensively as they want, including opening locked compartments, regardless of the reason for which your car was originally impounded.
What Do I Do If Police Want to Search My Car?
Both federal and state law recognizes that in certain situations a police officer can conduct a search and seize evidence without a warrant. Therefore, if a law enforcement officer tells you they are going to search your vehicle without your permission, you must step away from the car and allow the search to take place. You can take photos and/or videos of what happens and write down the details of the incident, including the name and badge number of the cops involved and the license plate number of the police car. This information can be helpful later should you need to work with a criminal defense attorney after police search your car without a warrant.
Texas Criminal Defense Attorneys
After reading this article and watching television, you might think police can search your vehicle anywhere anytime. But, if your vehicle is in fact unlawfully searched, it could prevent the government from using the evidence obtained from that search against you. Depending on the other facts in your particular case, illegally obtained evidence can actually prevent you from being charged with a crime.
While there are several reasons a warrantless vehicle search can be legal, an officer cannot search your car without justification. In addition, according to Texas law, it is illegal to conduct a traffic stop or search a car based on the vehicle occupants’ race, ethnicity, economic status, or gender, yet we often find that cops do just that.
It can be hard for the average person without legal training to figure out when dealing with the police if the officers have probable cause or not. Reach out to our experienced Texas criminal defense attorneys for help challenging illegally obtained evidence and to present your strongest defense at trial in Harris County, Brazoria County, Fort Bend County, and many other nearby locations close to Houston, Texas, and Pearland, Texas.
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