When Officers Can Search Your Vehicle? (Part I)

Do you know when officers can search your vehicle? Just as we do not like someone snooping through our houses without our permission and/or a valid reason for doing so, none of us appreciates a person who searches our car. Even if we do not “live out of our cars,” many of us still have personal records or items of property inside our cars that we may not want others to know about or discover. Where the items of property inside our cars are completely innocuous and not connected in any way to criminal activity, an unwarranted and unjustified car search by law enforcement can nonetheless feel invasive.

While the law recognizes that a car is not a home and that cars can be more easily moved than a home (raising the possibility that a car and driver can abscond before officers have a chance to search the vehicle), law enforcement officers’ rights to search your vehicle are not unlimited. In order to search your vehicle, the officer must generally have probable cause or there must be an exception to the requirement that the officer first obtain a warrant.

Stopping Your Car When It is Moving

How to know when officers can search your vehicle?If your car is moving, it follows that before police can perform a search of your car, they must stop your car. In order to lawfully stop a moving vehicle, officers must have reasonable suspicion that you have committed a criminal act or that you are somehow connected to criminal activity. Reasonable suspicion is a low standard – all that it requires is some objective facts to suggest criminal activity so that the officer has something more than a mere “hunch.” If the officer observes you commit a traffic violation – even if your headlight or taillight is out – the officer possesses reasonable suspicion to stop your car. If the officer receives a sufficiently reliable tip that your car is somehow related to a crime (like a concerned motorist reporting a vehicle that matches your vehicle’s description is traveling erratically), this too may provide the officer with reasonable suspicion.

However, the mere fact that your car is observed traveling to, from, or through a neighborhood known for criminal activity is not enough for officers to stop your car.

Once the Car is Stopped, Officers Need Probable Cause to Search

Once officers have stopped your vehicle, officers generally may not search your vehicle unless they have probable cause to believe there is evidence pertaining to a crime located in your vehicle. Probable cause is a higher standard than reasonable suspicion: It generally requires the officer to possess specific facts that would lead a reasonably cautious person to conclude that evidence of a crime is to be found in the car. For example, an officer who smells burning marijuana coming from the inside of the car likely possesses probable cause to search the vehicle for the marijuana.

Don’t Officers Need a Warrant to Search the Car?

Unlike a house, officers do not necessarily need a warrant to search the interior of the car. Because of the mobile nature of a car – the fact that it can be driven away at a moment’s notice while an officer is attempting to obtain a warrant – officers generally do not need to obtain a warrant to search your car as part of a traffic stop (they must have probable cause as discussed above, though). One of the few situations in which an officer might need to obtain a warrant to search the interior of the car would be if the vehicle was legally parked on the street but was clearly immovable because it was missing its tires or the hood was opened and there was no engine. In such a case, a warrant may be necessary. Consult experienced attorneys at the AZ Criminal Defense Group to know when officers can search your vehicle.