When a person is pulled over by the police, it is often debated whether that officer had the authority to search the vehicle. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution states that people must be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. For some traffic stops, an officer may be able to search a car without a warrant and under restricted circumstances, as set out by the United States Supreme Court.
In general, there are three types of vehicle searches:
- A search incident to arrest
- An inventory search
- A probable cause search.
The search incident to arrest allows police officers to conduct a search of the immediate vicinity of the driver, when the driver can reach inside of the car, when the police have grounds to place the driver under arrest. A search incident to arrest would not be justified in cases where the driver is already inside the patrol car.
An inventory search of a vehicle is allowed in circumstances when the police arrest a driver and impound the car, to avoid being liable for the loss or damage to the car owner’s property. An inventory search involves listing all items found in the car at that time.
Finally, a probable cause search is allowed in circumstances when the police have a reasonable suspicion that a weapon or evidence of other crimes for which they stopped the driver may be found. If the police conduct the search within the limits as described above, any evidence found (such as drugs) can be used against the defendant.
Even though the police’s ability to search cars is limited, it is important to remember that anything in “plain view” can be used against the defendant. For example, if a driver is pulled over for speeding but on the passenger side a bag of cocaine is visible, this will also be used against the defendant. An officer can scan the contents of a vehicle at any stop and evidence of criminal activity will likely lead to a more invasive search.