Unlawful Vehicle Searches

4th Amendment Guide to Unlawful Vehicle Searches

In everyday life, a car is thought of as a private place, a place that is your own. Many people keep valuables in glove boxes, center consoles, and trunks. Automobiles have become more of a second home than merely a way to get around town. Unfortunately, the law draws a distinction between an individual's privacy interest in their home and in their vehicle. Because of a car's mobility, officers do not need a warrant to search a car. However, there are limitations.

To search a person's car, without consent and not incident to arrest, all that is needed is for an officer to have probable cause based on a reasonable observation that criminal activity is afoot.

One of the most common types of scenarios involving automobile and vehicle searches are stops based on a description of the car as being involved in a crime. An officer, upon seeing the car in question matches a color, model, and make of a certain car being sought, will pull the vehicle over. After securing and often times detaining the driver and any passengers, the officer will search the vehicle based on the matching description of the vehicle as being connected to a crime earlier reported.

Vehicle searches include containers inside of the car itself; this means a glovebox, center console, and any bags or cases within the car may be searched as well while officers are looking for the illegal items or contraband. The trunk is included, meaning officers can not only search in the trunk of the car, but in any locked containers in the trunk as well.

The risk exists that an officer without probable cause for the valid search will use his or her authority to impound the vehicle for some reason, such as illegal parking, and then conduct an inventory search of the car for whatever was being sought in the first place. Such a pretext, when it is obvious the inventory was nothing more than a loophole in the fourth amendment, is frowned upon by the court, however if there was a valid lawful reason for the impound, the argument that the search was a violation of an individual's constitutional rights is more difficult to win.


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