Can the Police Search My Car?

Can the Police Search Your Car? 

If the police searched your car and uncovered illegal contraband in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, you should speak with one of our Philadelphia criminal lawyers today. Our defense attorneys have won many motions to suppress and constructive possession trials in cases involving guns, drugs, and other illegally seized evidence. We will fight for your constitutional rights and to ensure that illegally seized items are not introduced into evidence against you. Call 267-225-2545 for a complimentary criminal defense strategy session with one of our top-rated Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers.

Do Police Need a Search Warrant to Search a Car? 

The legality of car searches by the police is frequently at issue in cases involving possessory offenses such as firearms cases and drug possession cases. In general, if the police conduct an illegal search or seizure, then the evidence obtained as a result of the illegal conduct could be suppressed. In many cases, the suppression of the critical evidence could lead to the dismissal of charges. However, the police typically have more authority for when they can search your car than for when they can search a house.

The general rule under the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions is that law enforcement officers need a search warrant to conduct a search. However, the courts have created so many exceptions to this general rule that the rule essentially only applies to searches of houses or other types of residences and more recently, cell phones. Unsurprisingly, there are a number of exceptions which could permit a police search of a vehicle without a search warrant depending on the facts of the case.

Consent to Search the Vehicle

First, the police can always conduct a search when they have the consent of the owner or operator of the vehicle. If the police pull over a vehicle for a traffic infraction and are suspicious of the driver for some reason, they can always ask the driver for permission to search the car. If the driver gives them permission, then they may search the car and can use anything that they find as evidence in court. The only challenges which could be brought via a Motion to Suppress in this instance would be to the legality of the initial stop and whether the driver actually gave consent or whether the consent was fabricated or coerced.

Therefore, our advice is that you should not give permission or consent should the police ask if they can search your car. However, if the police decide to conduct a search anyway, you should not attempt to resist. Instead, it is best to remain calm while they conduct the search and speak with an attorney about your legal options once the encounter has ended.

Police Usually Need Probable Cause to Conduct a VEHICLE Search

Second, courts have developed an “automobile exception” to the warrant requirement. Under the United States Constitution, police officers and federal agents typically do not need a warrant to conduct a search of a vehicle. Instead, because of the inherent mobility of an automobile, they may search the vehicle if they have probable cause to do so. Probable cause means that it is more likely than not that the police will find contraband or some evidence of a crime. Thus, if police have probable cause, they do not have to obtain a warrant or consent prior to conduct a search.

An example would be a situation in which police pull a suspect over for swerving and upon approach, the officers believe the driver to be under the influence of alcohol. While questioning the driver, one of the officers smells alcohol coming from inside the actual vehicle. In that case, a prosecutor would argue that police have probable cause to enter the vehicle and determine the source of the odor because it was more likely than not that police might find spilled alcohol or a beer can which would be evidence in the subsequent DUI case against the driver.

Until recently, Pennsylvania took a more limited approach to the automobile exception. Previously, in order to evade the warrant requirement, prosecutors were required to show both that the police had probable cause to search a vehicle and that some sort of exigent circumstances applied, meaning that evidence could be lost should the police be required to obtain a warrant. However, in Commonwealth v. Gary, the Pennsylvania Supreme court abolished the exigent circumstances requirement and adopted the federal automobile exception, meaning that police can now search a vehicle whenever they have probable cause to do so.

Other Exceptions Which Allow Law Enforcement to Search a Car

Third, there are a number of other potential scenarios in which the police can search a car without a warrant. For example, if the police end up arresting the driver of the car, then there are some circumstances in which the police may conduct a search of the car as a “search incident to arrest.” However, in Arizona v. Gant, the United States Supreme Court held that police may only conduct this type of search incident to arrest of a car when the police reasonably believe that they are likely to find evidence of the offense of arrest. This means that officers cannot automatically search a car as a search incident to an arrest for a suspended registration or suspended driver’s license. Instead, police must have some reason to believe they are going to find more evidence of the crime for which they arrested the driver in the vehicle.

Additionally, the police may, in some occasions, conduct an inventory search of a car if they are required to tow it after arresting or citing the driver. However, recent case law has substantially limited the authority of the police to conduct an inventory search of a car (commonly called a LIVESTOP in Philadelphia), and some of these inventory searches are now subject to challenge with a motion to suppress.

Police Can Sometimes Frisk A Car

Finally, police may also conduct a limited search of a vehicle if they have reasonable suspicion that the driver or passenger was engaged in criminal activity and that he or she was armed an dangerous. In that situation, the Terry doctrine allows them to conduct a “frisk” of the areas which were accessible to the driver to ensure that the driver will not have access to weapons if he or she is allowed to return to the vehicle. Of course, if the police find contraband or are able to see contraband while conducting the frisk, then they may enter the vehicle to retrieve the contraband and use it as evidence in a criminal prosecution under the plain view or plain feel doctrines.

There are other exceptions to these general rules and other issues which frequently come up such as K9 searches and the duration of time during which the police may detain a vehicle an conduct an investigation pursuant to a traffic stop. However, those issues will be the subject of future articles.

How A Philadelphia Criminal Lawyer Can Help

Clearly, there are a lot of exceptions which allow the police to search a car without a warrant, and we are likely at a point where the exceptions have begun to swallow the rule. This means that the answer to the question, “Can the police search my car?” is unfortunately that it depends on the circumstances. It is clear that police are not required to obtain a search warrant to search a car during a traffic stop. Instead, they are typically going to be required to make some sort of showing of either probable cause or reasonable suspicion in order to justify a search, and these searches are often subject to challenge with a motion to suppress.

If it can be shown that the initial stop was illegal, or that the police did not have actual reason to believe that they would find contraband in the car, it may be possible to have the evidence suppressed and excluded at trial. Likewise, if the police claim that the defendant consented to the search but the defendant and witnesses in the car disagree, it may be possible to prove that the consent was fabricated or coerced. Each case is different, and despite the elimination of the warrant requirement for vehicle searches, there are still real limits on the ability of the police to search a car. The bottom line is that illegally seized evidence usually cannot be used against you in court, and in many cases, it remains possible to challenge the warrantless search of an automobile. 

If the police searched your car and found something illegal in Pennsylvania or New jersey, you need the services of one of our Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers. We have won countless motions to suppress and trials on gun and drug charges. We will fight to protect your rights and make sure that illegally seized evidence is not used against you. Call 267-225-2545 for a complimentary criminal defense strategy session with one of our top-rated Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers.