Can the Police Search My Vehicle Without a Warrant?

Male driver chased by police. He is thinking can the police search my vehicle without a warrant?

There are some circumstances in which police can lawfully search your car without a warrant. However, during most traffic stops, the police must ask for your permission before searching your vehicle. If you do not give them permission and there are no extenuating circumstances that justify a warrantless search, police cannot lawfully search your car. Any evidence discovered through an unlawful search should be excluded from consideration at trial.

Do Not Consent to a Search of Your Vehicle

When police ask to search your car (or your home or person, for that matter), you should politely but clearly tell them that you do not consent to the search. Do not let a police officer bully you into agreeing to a search. Police officers are trained to use a variety of tactics to get you to consent. They may suggest that if you have nothing to hide you would consent to the search, or phrase their request in a way so your words can be construed to mean you did consent to the search.

When police ask you to consent to a search of your car, you should politely but unequivocally tell them that you do not consent.

You have a constitutional right to refuse to consent to a search. Refusing a search does not provide police with probable cause to believe you have committed a crime.

If police want to search your car and you do not provide them with consent, they will need to obtain a warrant and convince a judge that they have probable cause to believe you have committed a crime.

One tactic you can use is to ask the police what, specifically, it is that they are searching for. They will need to provide the same information to a judge to establish probable cause to support a warrant, so there is no reason that they cannot provide you with the same information.

When Can Police Search Your Vehicle Without a Warrant?

The Fourth Amendment prohibits unlawful searches by law enforcement and generally prohibits a search of your vehicle by the police. However, there are limited circumstances in which police can search your car without first obtaining a warrant or your consent.

Plain View

When the police see something in plain view or smell something that gives them probable cause to believe you have committed a crime, they can lawfully search your car without a warrant. For example, if police smell marijuana coming from your vehicle they can search the vehicle without first obtaining a warrant. Similarly, if they see evidence that you committed a crime, such as an open container of alcohol or drug paraphernalia, they have probable cause to believe you committed a crime and can search your car without a warrant.

Administrative Search

If you were arrested because you had drugs in your car, police will have your vehicle towed to an impound lot. Once your car is impounded, police can lawfully search your vehicle for other evidence of a crime.

Automobile Exception

The law views vehicles differently from your home or your person, and there are situations in which police do not need a warrant to search your car. If the police have probable cause to believe you committed a crime, they can search your car without first obtaining a warrant.

Courts have justified the warrantless search of a motor vehicle on the basis that: (1) a person has less of an expectation of privacy in their motor vehicle than in their home; and (2) due to the mobility of a vehicle, any contraband could be more easily removed from the scene.

However, the scope of the search is limited to areas in which the police have probable cause to believe they will find something illegal. In many cases, police can lawfully search your vehicle, including the trunk, as well as any containers in the vehicle that could contain contraband.

Search Incident to Arrest

If you have been placed under arrest, police can perform a search incident to arrest to ensure that there are no weapons or people who pose a threat of harm to the police officer. The extent of the search is generally limited to the officer’s “wingspan.”

What If You Are Stopped for a Minor Offense, Like Speeding?

If you have been stopped for a minor offense like speeding and there is no additional evidence to suggest you committed a crime, police likely will not be allowed to search your vehicle without a warrant. To perform a search without a warrant, the police must have a reasonable, articulable suspicion to believe you have committed a crime. However, if during the course of the traffic stop police discover evidence that does give them probable cause to believe you have committed a crime, they may be able to search your vehicle.

Contact Elmen Legal for a Vigorous Criminal Defense

If you are under investigation or have been accused of a crime in or around Ann Arbor, Michigan, Elmen Legal can help.

Elmen Legal provides a vigorous defense to people who have been accused of a crime. When you work with Elmen Legal, I will thoroughly investigate your case, including the circumstances of your arrest, to identify strategies that can be used to have evidence excluded from trial. I will conduct an independent investigation into your case to identify defenses we can raise. And I will vigorously defend you in court.

To learn more about the cases I accept, contact Elmen Legal today to schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your situation and how I can help.

I proudly represent people who have been accused of crimes in Ann Arbor, Saline, Pittsfield Township, Chelsea, or Ypsilanti, in Washtenaw, Wayne, Monroe, Lenawee, Hillsdale, Jackson, Ingham, Livingston, and Oakland Counties.

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Admitted to practice law in 2014, Ann Arbor criminal defense attorney Robert Elmen defends people accused of crimes such as assault and battery, domestic violence, sex crimes, drug crimes, and drunk driving / OWI / DUI. His caring approach towards his clients sets him apart from other lawyers as he recognizes that people come to him during their darkest hours, looking for help, and for hope. Robert is a student of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and draws on his martial arts training to help himself and his clients remain calm in the face of what may seem like insurmountable odds.

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