It is common to have a client come into my office who is facing criminal charges resulting from a search of their vehicle by a police officer. Many of those clients want to know whether the police had the right to search their vehicle and whether I can have the evidence that was recovered thrown out of Court. There’s no simple answer to this question. Whether the police had the right to search the vehicle and whether I can convince the Court to throw out the evidence depends on the facts of each individual case. I want to talk a little bit about the general rules and what the constitutional limits are when it comes to the police searching a motor vehicle.
Generally speaking, the police cannot search your vehicle without a warrant. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures when we have a reasonable expectation of privacy. Courts have consistently ruled that we do have a reasonable expectation of privacy in our motor vehicles. At the same time, the Courts have recognized that there is an “automobile exception” to the search warrant requirement when it comes to our cars. The “automobile exception” provides that individuals have a lower expectation of privacy when it comes to their cars as opposed to their homes. The Fourth amendment creates minimum requirements that apply to all states and in all cases. However, states are free to grant their citizens more rights than what’s afforded to them by the United States Constitution.
The police can search your vehicle without a warrant only under certain limited circumstances. The limited circumstances are set forth as follows: