When Can Police Search Vehicles Without A Warrant?

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On January 9th, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court heard two cases about when police are allowed to search vehicles. As of this writing, they haven’t reached a decision.  

Vehicle Searches with Probable Cause 

In 1925, police were authorized to search vehicles without a warrant if they had probable cause, or reason to believe a criminal act was taking place inside the vehicle. This is based on the idea that by the time an officer gets a warrant to search the vehicle, it could be miles away. So, warrantless searches of vehicles are allowed if: 

  • You waive your Fourth Amendment rights by consenting to a search, 
  • The officer sees, smells, or otherwise has concrete reason to believe your vehicle contains evidence of a crime or contraband, 
  • The officer has reason to believe they are in danger due to a concealed weapon, 
  • You are under arrest and the search is related to the crime for which you were arrested. 

This seems like a lot of leeway, but officers aren’t allowed to simply search your vehicle because they have a hunch. As in your home, you have a right to privacy, but when you are on the road, that right to privacy is somewhat diminished. 

When Can Police Search Rental Vehicles? 

The first question considered by the Supreme Court Justices concerns your right to privacy in a rental car. Since you don’t own the car, is your right to refuse a search waived? Or should you have the same rights as the vehicle owner so long as your name is on the rental agreement? What if you give a friend or relative permission to drive the rental, and their name isn’t on the agreement?  

When you rent a car, you expect to have some privacy when it comes to the items locked in your trunk. This was not the case when police searched a rental car without a warrant, consent, or probable cause and discovered a stash of heroin in the locked trunk. Now, that case is being heard by the Supreme Court. 

When Can Police Search Vehicles In Your Driveway? 

In the past, the courts have ruled that the area outside your home is protected from warrantless searches under the 4th amendment. Police can no sooner dig for evidence in your yard than they can barge into your house without either consent, plain view evidence of a crime, or a warrant.  

You might think that means vehicles parked in your driveway fall under the same privacy rights. In fact, that remains to be determined as of this writing. Some justices argue that because you can drive the vehicle away, at which point it would be subject to the vehicle exemption, the vehicle exemption also applies in your driveway. Others argue that the exemption does not apply, and the vehicle should be treated the same as your home and yard. 

Determining which evidence is admissible when a case is brought against you can mean the difference between a conviction and a clean record. When police conduct illicit searches, we can have the evidence thrown out. Whether you are facing a traffic violation or criminal charges, the team at Pinnacle Law can help with your case. Contact us today at 480.300.5380. 

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