When Can Officers Search Your Vehicle in Arizona? (Part II)

When can officers search your vehicle in Arizona? Once officers have lawfully stopped your vehicle and detained you, they may search the interior of your car if they have probable cause that there is evidence of a crime contained within your car. During most traffic stops where officers have probable cause to search your vehicle, officers will not obtain a warrant before searching the car as they will not need to do so. In some cases, officers will not even need probable cause to search your vehicle’s interior. This can happen where:

  • Officers perform a routine inventory of your vehicle before towing. Suppose you are stopped and placed under arrest for a traffic misdemeanor or because you have a warrant out for your arrest. There is no family member or friend available to come to your location in order to retrieve your car and there is no safe place where the car may be left legally parked. Officers may have no choice but to have your car towed to an impound lot until you or someone else is able to retrieve the car. To protect themselves and minimize the chance of a lawsuit from an angry driver who accuses the police of taking items from his or her car, officers routinely perform an inventory of the vehicle. The purpose of the vehicle inventory is to create a written record of all the items present in the car at the time of your arrest so that if you later come and claim that items of property are missing from your car, the officers have a record of what it is they found in the car. When performing an inventory of your car, if officers find illegal contraband, this can be seized and the evidence used against you in court.

  • Officers obtain your consent to search the vehicle. This is by far the predominate way in which officers are able to search vehicles without having probable cause. If you give officers permission to search your car, this obviates any need for the officer to have probable cause. For example, suppose that an officer has a hunch that you are transporting marijuana for sale based upon the make and model of your car and the Jamaican flag bumper sticker on your car. This does not provide the officer with probable cause to search: if the officer searched your car and found marijuana, the marijuana could be suppressed and kept from being used against you in any subsequent criminal proceeding. However, suppose that the officer asks for permission to search your vehicle and you say yes. The officer performs the search and discovers marijuana. Now it becomes much more difficult to suppress the marijuana (perhaps impossible) since an officer that has your consent to search does not need to have any other justification for the search.

(Note, however, if you or the officer specify what areas of the car the officer may search – i.e., the officer asks to search your trunk and you say yes – the officer must confine his or her search to that area unless he or she develops probable cause to support a search of other parts of the car.)

when can officers search your vehicle in arizonaThere is no punishment under the law for refusing to provide consent to search your car. There are some officers that may attempt to bully you into giving them permission to search your vehicle, but remember your rights and stand firm. If the officer has probable cause, he or she can search your car anyway. If he or she does not have probable cause, then the officer has no business searching your car in the first place. If you have doubts about when can officers search your vehicle in Arizona, feel free to contact our experienced Arizona lawyers.