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FAQs: Vehicle Search and Seizure Law

Issues involving searches and seizures and the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution tend to be cloudy and confusing. In particular, evidence police discover during warrantless vehicle searches, even in plain view, can be controversial.

To make matters more difficult, the U.S. Supreme Court recently narrowed existing car search and seizure law with its Arizona vs. Gant decision. This set of frequently asked questions should help clarify search and seizure issues and answer some common questions about vehicle searches.

When can police officers search a vehicle without a warrant?

For the better part of the last three decades, police officers have had the right to search the interior of a person’s vehicle during a traffic-related stop without a warrant and under certain conditions. If someone consented to a search or was arrested, an officer could examine his or her vehicle (this is called “search incident to arrest”).

Officers could also search a person’s car without consent if they reasonably believed there were illegal or dangerous items, like drugs or weapons, especially if they were in plain view. A 2009 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, however, narrowed these conditions.

In Arizona vs. Gant, the U.S. Supreme Court stated that, “Police may search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant’s arrest only if the arrestee is within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search ….” This ruling confuses existing laws that allow police to place a suspect in their squad car while searching a vehicle. While Gant limits the ability for police to search vehicles, it further protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment.

What can police officers legally do when searching a vehicle?

In general, if an item in a vehicle is within reach of a driver and in plain view of the officer during a traffic stop, a police officer may legally seize it. Known as the plain view doctrine, this practice also allows officers to search the vehicle further without a warrant, because there is now probable cause that similar items may be present. For example, if an officer notices drug paraphernalia in a car, he or she may search the vehicle for drugs.

Can police search the trunk of a vehicle?

For officers to be able to search a trunk during a vehicle stop without a warrant, there must be consent from the driver or strong probable cause that it contains illegal items. Other than these exceptions, trunks typically cannot be searched or their contents seized. If officers lawfully arrest a driver and the car is impounded, however, no warrant is needed to search through and inventory the contents of the trunk.

When can evidence from a vehicle search be suppressed at trial?

If a driver consents to a vehicle search, anything found in the vehicle may be admissible during a trial. Under the exclusionary rule, though, any evidence obtained through illegal means may be challenged or deemed inadmissible. So, if an officer searches a vehicle without probable cause or searches in unreasonable places, a defendant may be able to exclude the evidence obtained during that search. Additionally, under the new Gant ruling, items seized while a vehicle was out of the driver’s control may also be suppressed at trial.

How do I get help with challenging a vehicle search and seizure?

There is no substitute for experienced legal help when it comes to criminal matters. If you were recently subjected to a vehicle search and seizure during a routine traffic stop that you believe was unreasonable and unlawful, contact a local criminal law attorney for advice. A criminal defense attorney will be able to review the circumstances of your unique case and help you challenge the admissibility of items seized during an illegal and warrantless vehicle search.

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