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Can Police Search my Car Without a Search Warrant?

"Come back with a warrant!" Is a phrase that we hear often in movies, on social media, and in YouTube videos.

What about when a police officer is asking for consent to search your car? Or when a police officer is telling you to step out of the vehicle and says he doesn't need your consent to search?

The truth is police never need a search warrant if they have probable cause to search your car during a traffic stop. They do need to have probable cause to search for evidence of a crime, but they only need what is called a "reasonable suspicion" to search for weapons on your person or in your vehicle.

The Automobile Exception to the Search Warrant Requirement

I've seen several YouTube videos where individuals proclaim that police must get a search warrant before searching your vehicle or the trunk of your vehicle - this is terrible advice that can only make a bad situation worse if you demand that an officer get a warrant.

There are two situations when an officer can search your car during a traffic stop:

  1. The officer has probable cause to believe that there is evidence of a crime (usually narcotics) in your vehicle. At this point, the officer can search your person, your car including any area of the car where the suspected evidence of crime could be found, any containers in which the evidence of crime could be found, and any passengers in the car.
  2. The officer has a reasonable suspicion that you may have a weapon that could be used against the officer. In this case, the officer can pat you down and can search the passenger compartment of the vehicle for any weapons that would be within your reach. If the officer sees drugs or other evidence of a crime within plain view, they can also seize those items and charge you for them.

Because automobiles, or any motorized vehicle, are mobile, the courts have found that there is an inherent danger of destruction of evidence in a motor vehicle. Officers do not need to leave, obtain a search warrant, and then return to search your vehicle. If the officer determines that there is probable cause, they can immediately search the car and a court will review their probable cause determination later if you challenge it.

When the Police Don't Need Probable Cause to Search

The legal standard of "reasonable suspicion" is a lower standard than "probable cause." When an officer has a reasonable suspicion that a person is armed and dangerous, they can legally search for weapons on your person or in your car. Citing officers' safety concerns, the United States Supreme Court has held that an officer may:

  • Ask the driver and occupants of a vehicle to step out of the vehicle (Pennsylvania v. Mimms). I've seen videos of persons refusing to roll down their windows for officers and insisting that they are within their rights - they are wrong. You do not have the right to refuse to roll down your window or to remain in your car if the officer asks you to step out of the vehicle.
  • Just as an officer can "pat down" a person on the street that they believe is armed and dangerous, they can also pat down the driver or any occupants of a vehicle for weapons. (Arizona v. Johnson). During the pat down, if the officer feels anything that is readily recognizable as contraband, they can then seize the contraband and charge you with it under what is called the "plain feel exception."
  • An officer can also search the passenger compartment of a vehicle if they have a reasonable suspicion that weapons may be present. (Michigan v. Long). They can only search those areas of the car where weapons could be hidden and retrieved by the driver or passenger.

Reasonable suspicion means a "reasonable, articulable suspicion." The officer must be able to articulate the basis of their suspicion and their explanation must be reasonable. A search based on a reasonable suspicion can easily turn into probable cause if the officer sees (plain view exception) or feels (plain feel exception) contraband or other evidence of a crime.

Did Police Search Your Car Without a Warrant?

Police never need a warrant to search a vehicle during a traffic stop, but there are still limits on when and how an officer can search your car. Your Myrtle Beach criminal defense lawyer at Axelrod and Associates will get the evidence in your case including the officers' reports and video of the traffic stop, and we will find all possible grounds to exclude the evidence in your case.

If your car was searched by police in Myrtle Beach or Conway SC, schedule a free consultation with a Myrtle Beach criminal defense lawyer on the Axelrod team. Call us at (843) 916-9300 or fill out our contact form today.

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