How Can the Police Search My Car When I Did Not Give Them Consent?

Police officer talking to a person sitting in a car

Oftentimes we get this question when people come into our offices. Needless to say, there are a lot of people that get arrested for offenses that they weren’t necessarily pulled over for. A person could only think that they are getting pulled over for a traffic offense, but after speaking with the officer, or the officer getting close to the car, the traffic stop now escalates, and turns into a person on the side of the road with their car being searched.

You might ask, “How can the police search my car for just a traffic offense?” “Why are they searching it when I told them they couldn’t?” “Why are they searching my car without a search warrant?”

These are some questions you might find yourself asking the next time you are pulled over and the police search your car without your consent.

Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. The Fourth Amendment states, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, …”. People are protected under the Fourth Amendment from warrantless searches and seizures, but just like most rules, there are certain exceptions to this.

Although there are several exceptions to the rule that the police have to have a warrant to search your property, we’ll address a few that are relevant regarding the police searching your car.

Plain View Exception

One of the main ways that the police can search your car is if they see something in “plain view”. What this means, is that if a police officer walks up to your car, and they see something illegal, or something they believe is contraband of a crime, they are able to search your car without a warrant, and without your consent.

For example: Let’s say you are pulled over for speeding by a police officer. When the officer walks up to ask for your drivers license and insurance, he sees a little baggy of weed in the console in plain view. This would fall under the plain view exception, and the officer would be permitted to continue to search your car (with or without your consent).

Exigent Circumstances Exception

Another way the police can search your car is if there are exigent circumstances where obtaining a warrant is dangerous or impractical. What this means is that if the police feel that they need to search the car for their safety or they would not have enough time to get a search warrant, and still be able to seize or secure the property that is in the car without the possibility of it being destroyed, they are able to search your car.

I’ll give a couple of examples of this scenario. The first example is, a police officer pulls you over for speeding. The officer comes up to your window, and immediately smells the odor of marijuana coming from your car. The officer in that case is going to be able to search your car to see if there is marijuana in the car. The thought is that if the officer is not immediately allowed to search the car, a person could destroy or hide any drugs that are in the car.

The second example of exigent circumstances is the following: Let’s say the police officer pulls you over for an expired registration of the vehicle. As you pull over, and are waiting for the police officer to come to your window, the officer sees you constantly reaching under your seat as if you are trying to hide something. As the officer questions you, you act really nervous, and you appear to be looking around in the car. In this situation, an officer can have you step out of the car, and begin a search of the car. The officer would say that she searched the car because of exigent circumstances. She would say that the “furtive gestures” of reaching under the seat made the officer fear for her safety, and that she thought that you were trying to hide a gun or drugs under the seat.

Search Incident to a Lawful Arrest

The final way for our discussion that a police officer can search your vehicle is if the search is made after a lawful arrest. Most, if not all police agencies have a policy for inventorying a person’s property if they arrest them. If you are arrested by a police officer, they are allowed to search your person to make sure that you don’t have any drugs or dangerous weapons. If you are in a vehicle at the time of the arrest, they will typically search the vehicle as well to make sure there are no drugs or weapons in the vehicle. They also search to make sure if there is anything of value, they can put it with your property so that you can retrieve it at a later date.

Here’s an example of a search incident to a lawful arrest. Let’s say that a police officer pulls your car over for speeding. After he pulls you over, he finds out that you have an active warrant for your arrest because you had not paid previous traffic tickets. When the officer arrests you, he is going to search you and your car before taking you to jail.

Important to Know These Exceptions

It’s really important to know and understand these exceptions. There are so many cases that we see, where an officer is able to get in and search a car. Once the officer is able to search the car, anything found during the search can be used to charge you with more offenses. Although an officer can search a vehicle because they smell weed, if they find a gun in the car, or other drugs that are not weed, you could potentially be charged with those offenses as well.

If you find yourself in one of these situations, it’s important to hire an attorney that is familiar with legal and illegal searches. If the search is illegal, it could lead to the prosecution not being able to use the illegally seized evidence against you.

Contact Harris & Harris Law Group, PLLC today, so that we can discuss your situation with you, and go over options.