People are frequently stopped by police officers while driving or riding in a car. Sometimes a simple traffic stop can lead a lot more. If police suspect that a person has been drinking and driving or has been using drugs, the police may want to search the vehicle. Drug charges can often result from a simple vehicle search.
In general, police need a search warrant in order to search people’s property. However, one of the exceptions to the search warrant requirement is the automobile exception. This exception gives police more freedom when it comes to searching cars. Courts say that people just have less of an expectation of privacy in their car than in their home. This exception allows a search of a car under reasonable circumstances.
Courts have defined four situations where warrantless searches of vehicles are reasonable. First, if a person has been arrested, the car can be searched pursuant to an arrest. If police arrest a person on suspected drug use, for example, a car can be searched for drugs. An officer can also perform a warrantless search of a car if the officer fears for the officer’s safety. In these cases, the officer can search for weapons. Police can also search a car if they have probable cause that the car contains evidence of a crime. Finally, if a person consents to a warrantless search, police are free to search the vehicle.
In these cases, however, the person must have been pulled over by police for a valid reason. In other words, police must have a reasonable and articulable belief that a traffic law was broken by the driver. If police do not follow these rules but still search the car, an illegal search may have taken place. In these cases, evidence found in illegal searches cannot be used in court.