You’ve been pulled over by the police because they suspect you have been drinking. Or perhaps you’ve been stopped at a DUI checkpoint. An officer comes over and raps on your window, and then requests your license and registration. That’s to be expected.
But then the officer surprises you by asking to search your vehicle. Do you have to let the police search your car?
Well, it depends.
Focus on the Fourth Amendment
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects you from “unreasonable searches and seizures”—and that protection applies to your vehicle. That means that in many cases, you do not have to allow the police to search your car. Politely reminding an officer that you are not required to submit to a search may end the issue.
That said, there are a number of circumstances under which the police are, in fact, allowed to conduct a search of your vehicle. It’s important to know what those circumstances are.
Learning About Lawful Searches
It won’t surprise you to learn that if an officer has a warrant to search your vehicle, they are allowed to do so. If the police have convinced a judge that they have evidence that strongly suggests a crime has or will occur, they will be granted a warrant to conduct a search.
Obtaining a warrant is not the only way the police can conduct a lawful search. Other circumstances in which they are permitted to search your vehicle include:
- They have probable cause due to a “plain view” situation. Officers are permitted to search without a warrant in the event that evidence of a crime is in plain view. While the word “view” suggests that the officer has to see the evidence in question, the fact is that the notion of “plain view” also applies to things they hear or smell. An officer who uses a plain view justification for a search will have to demonstrate to a judge that the search was legitimate before any evidence collected in the search can be used against you.
- They need to protect themselves. If officers believe they are in danger, they can search your vehicle. The most likely scenario here is a belief on the officers’ part that you have a hidden weapon.
- They are lawfully arresting you. If the police are arresting you because they have probable cause that you have committed a crime, they are allowed to search your vehicle due to the “automobile exception” that was a result of a case called Arizona v. Gant. They must reasonably believe that there is evidence related to the crime for which they are arresting you in the car.
- They have impounded your car. The police are allowed to search impounded vehicles. However, they are not allowed to impound a car for the sole purpose of searching it.
- You have given your consent. Remember our scenario in which an officer asks to search your car? If you say yes, they are allowed to do so. That’s why it is important to remember that you have the option to decline under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
If you believe that none of the above conditions apply, you should clearly tell the officers that you do not consent to the search of your vehicle. You should also request a lawyer and refuse to answer questions from the police until you have spoken with your attorney. You should not try to prevent officers from searching your vehicle (though you may well be tempted to do so).
Remember that if the search turns out to be illegitimate, any evidence collected will be inadmissible in court. Your attorney will vigorously argue this point on your behalf.
We Are Ready to Defend You in a DUI Case