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Know Your Rights: Vehicle Searches

Not every police search must be made under an executed search warrant. The Supreme Court has held on numerous occasions that warrantless vehicle searches may comply with the Fourth Amendment, as long as the search is reasonable under the circumstances.

Generally, police can search your vehicle without a warrant under the following circumstances:

  1. You have given the police consent;

  2. The police have probable cause to believe there is evidence of a crime in your vehicle;

  3. The police reasonably believe a search is necessary for their own protection; and.

  4. You have been arrested and the search is incident to that arrest


As stated above, the Fourth Amendment does not require that police obtain a warrant to search an automobile when they have probable cause to believe it contains contraband or evidence of criminal activity. Carroll v. US, 267 US 132 (1925). This exception is routinely called the “automobile exception.” The automobile exception is based upon both the inherent mobility of vehicles and the reduced expectation of privacy one has within their vehicle. Id.; PA v. Labron, 518 US 938 (1996). The Labron court went as far as holding that “if a car is readily mobile and probable cause exists to believe it contains contraband, the Fourth Amendment thus permits police to search the vehicle without more.” Labron at 940. Police have successfully utilized the automobile exception not only on vehicles but also on motor homes, portable campers, trains, planes, and vessels.


A probable cause search of a vehicle can be extensive. If police have probable cause to search an entire vehicle, they may search all compartments, containers, and packages within the vehicle. US v. Ross, 456 US 798 (1982). A probable cause search also applies to containers and packages of passengers within the vehicle.

However, if the police have probable cause to believe a specific container or package has contraband, then their search is limited to that container and the part of the vehicle in which the container is found. Id. Lets assume that the police believe that a backpack contains narcotics. The police witness the driver place the backpack in the trunk of the vehicle. The vehicle is subsequently stopped and a police search is initiated. The officers search not only the trunk, where the backpack was placed, but also search the vehicle’s glove compartment and find additional narcotics. Without additional probable cause to believe that there were additional narcotics within the vehicle, this additional search would likely be found unlawful. An attorney would be justified in filing a Motion to Suppress the additional items found during this broad search.


This exception is broad. An officer with probable cause to believe that a driver has violated a traffic law may temporarily detain the motorist. During this temporary detention, the police may conduct a limited search of the vehicle  and driver for weapons, if the police have a reasonable belief that the motorist is potentially dangerous. Mich. V Long, 463 US 1032 (1983). Courts will normally only consider a challenge to the validity of such a search by the owner or operator of the vehicle. Passengers who do not own a vehicle they are traveling within, typically have no legitimate expectation of privacy within the vehicle. Rakas v. Ill., 439 US 128 (1978).


After the police have taken possession of a vehicle (normally by towing the vehicle or impounding the vehicle) police may conduct a warrantless search of that property. Such a search is routinely called an “inventory search.” Inventory searches are lawful when the search is conducted to 1. Protect the owner’s property while it is in police custody; 2. Protecting the police against claims of lost or stolen property; or 3. Protecting the police from potential danger. Colo. V. Bertine, 479 US 367 (1987); Ill. V. Lafayette, 462 US 640 (1983).  Police may not conduct an inventory search in bad faith or solely for investigative purposes.  Fla. v Wells, 495 US 1 (1990). The Wells court stated “an inventory search must not be a ruse for a general rummaging in order to discover incriminating evidence.”  Id at 4.

Inventory searches of vehicles can also be broad. Courts have upheld inventory searches of vehicles lawfully in police custody, including searches of the passenger compartment, glove compartment, trunk, engine compartments, and any containers in the vehicle. Bertine at 368; Opperman, 428 US at 376; US v. Lumpkin, 159 F.3d 983 (6th Cir. 1998). An inventory search must be conducted according to standardized criteria and procedures implemented by the police department. Once again the search must be justified by legitimate inventory purposes, but the police CAN have additional investigative motives. US v. Richardson, 515 F.3d 74 (1st Cir. 2008).

Lake Shore Legal, LLC

If you have been arrested and charged with a crime contact Lake Shore Legal. Out attorneys can evaluate the circumstances of the vehicle stop and any police search of your vehicle. Lake Shore Legal can assist in protecting your rights.

Contact our office and speak to one of our attorneys today. (508) 943-7800.

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