Can the police search my car without a warrant?

The answer is maybe, if the vehicle is readily mobile and the police have probable cause. That is why its important to know your rights when your are in your vehicle. Our Fort Worth criminal defense firm can advise you what your rights are and can help you if your vehicle was searched and if there was contraband seized.

What gives police the right to search?

Under a rule called the “automobile exception,” police may search your car if it is readily mobile and they have probable cause to search the vehicle. Notice that this requirement is a much lower standard than what is required to search your home. This lower standard will not supersede the heightened requirements to search your home when your car is in your garage. These protections also extend to the “curtilage” of your home (the area directly surrounding your home such as your driveway) and will likely protect your vehicle from government searches when your vehicle is parked at home. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on vehicles not afforded the 4th Amendment protections that apply to the home. Courts justify this lower standard by reasoning that individuals have a lower expectation of privacy when they are driving a vehicle on a public road.  To understand the general rule, you must first answer two questions. First, what is “readily mobile”? Second, what is “probable cause”?

The first part of the automobile exception requires the vehicle to be readily mobile. Contrary to what may seem the ordinary definition of this phrase, a vehicle may be readily mobile even if the driver is nowhere near the vehicle. Instead, this standard merely requires that the vehicle itself be capable of transportation. For example, even if a vehicle is found stationary in a place not regularly used for residential purposes, that vehicle may meet the automobile exception if it is readily capable of being used on the highway.  Readily mobile, then, does not ask whether the vehicle can be used to escape at the time the police want to search it, but instead whether the vehicle is readily capable of being used on the highway when police want to search it. This question for most people is therefore easily answered. If you are pulled over while driving, your vehicle is readily mobile. The more vexing question usually turns on whether police have probable cause.

Whether the police have probable cause will be determined on a case-by-case basis, meaning that courts will look at each individual case to determine whether probable cause existed instead of applying a blanket rule. Probable cause is a standard of proof. Most people are aware of the standard used to determine whether a criminal defendant is guilty at trial. That standard requires the jury to find, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant committed the crime alleged. Probable cause is a much lower standard. Police have probable cause to search your vehicle “when the totality of the circumstances allows a conclusion that there is a fair probability of finding contraband or evidence at a particular location.” The “circumstances” surrounding the search will vary in every case, but generally include police observations or tips from confidential informants. Because these circumstances will vary, the United States Supreme Court has stated that probable cause is a “fluid concept” that depends “on the assessment of probabilities in particular factual contexts.” In short, probable cause likely exists unless you can prove that police searched your vehicle without relying on information/observations that would give rise to a fair probability that they would find what they were looking for.

Are there any other ways the police can search my car?

Police do not always need probable cause. If police are lacking probable cause they may still search your vehicle if they meet one of the exceptions to probable cause. For example, if you consent to the search, the police do not need probable cause before they search the vehicle. Police may also search your vehicle without probable cause if they rely on a defective warrant in good faith. A full discussion of the exceptions to the probable cause requirement is beyond the scope of this article but know that there are exceptions out there.

If police have probable cause to search your readily mobile vehicle, the question then becomes, “what can they search?” The police may search any part of the vehicle that may contain the contraband that they have probable cause to search for. In other words, if police think you have marijuana in your car, they can search anything in your vehicle that may contain marijuana. This could be small containers in your vehicle, the glove box, the center console, etc. If the police have probable cause to believe you are trafficking something larger, such as illegal weapons or people, then their search will be confined to only those containers or parts of the vehicle that could conceal the larger object. In legal terms, the scope of the warrantless search is “defined by the object of the search and the places in which there is probable cause to believe that it may be found.”

If you were stopped and had your car searched, it may have been an unlawful vehicle search. Our Board-Certified criminal defense attorneys in Fort Worth are well-versed with when the police can and cannot search a person’s vehicle. Call us at (817) 617-7500 if you need to speak to our attorneys about a pending criminal case.