When can police search your car during a traffic stop?

By Jonathan Blecher on March 2, 2023

You were pulled over by a police officer because they said you ran through a stop sign or maybe because your windows are tinted too darkly. As he was talking to you, he started perusing the interior of your car. The next thing you know, he found a gun under the back seat that’s not registered or maybe a few stray pills that fell between the seats, and you were under arrest.

You’re wondering if what the officer found can be used as evidence against you. Don’t you have a constitutional right to protection against unreasonable search and seizure? Doesn’t an officer need a warrant to search your car?

The U.S. Supreme Court has addressed this issue

The fact is that there are different rules for searches and seizures involving vehicles than for homes and other property. Because motor vehicles didn’t exist when the U.S. Constitution was written, they weren’t envisioning the scenario you faced.

The U.S. Supreme Court, however, has addressed this very common scenario in various rulings. Back in the 1920s, as motor vehicles became a common mode of transportation, the court decided in a case before it that as long as there was a valid reason for the traffic stop and an officer had probable cause for believing that evidence of a crime was inside, they could legally search a vehicle without obtaining a warrant.

The rationale was that a driver could conceivably drive off before a warrant could be obtained. They also pointed out that people have less expectation of privacy in their cars than in their homes. As with a search and seizure of a home, anything in plain view can be seized.

You have a right to challenge the way the evidence was obtained

This is where things may come down to an officer’s word against a driver’s. Was the driver really stopped for a legitimate reason or maybe just because they didn’t appear to “belong” in the area? What did the driver do that made the officer believe there might be contraband of some kind in the vehicle? Was the property seized really in plain view?

These are all ways that you may be able to challenge evidence that’s being used against you if it was found during a traffic stop. This is just one reason why it’s important to have legal guidance if you’re facing criminal charges.


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