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Detroit Legal Blog

When Can the Police Search My Car?

Oct 06, 2017, by Maurice Davis in Constitutional Law, Criminal Defense, Legal Blog

Police are lawfully permitted to stop a vehicle under a number of different circumstances. For instance, police can detain a vehicle if they have reasonable suspicion the driver has violated the law. Another scenario which gives police legal authorization to stop a vehicle without evidence of a legal infraction is at a checkpoint. If the police stop your vehicle at a legal stop, you may want to know the answer to the question “can the police legally search my car?”

If you feel that your rights have been violated by an unlawful vehicle search that has led to a criminal charge against you, it’s important that you obtain the services of an experienced Detroit criminal defense attorney. Davis Law Group, led by attorney Maurice Davis, will review all options on your behalf and pursue the most effective defense possible in order to minimize, or, eliminate the charges and consequences you are facing.

Contact Davis Law Group today at (313) 818-3238 to schedule a free case evaluation.

Fourth Amendment Protection

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees protection against unreasonable search and seizure. In general, a warrant issued by a magistrate judge and backed by probable cause are the requirements for lawful search and seizure. However, some exceptions to the warrant requirement exist. This is particularly true as it involves searches of automobiles. Therefore, the circumstances in which the question “can the police search my car” can be answered in the affirmative are discussed below.

Permissible Vehicle Searches Without a Warrant

Fourth Amendment protections are based on the concept of reasonableness. Not all police searches are prohibited under the Fourth Amendment, only searches deemed unreasonable are. Two major considerations must be balanced by the courts in determining what defines a reasonable search: the degree to which a search infringes upon the rights of an individual, and the reason offered by the government official conducting the search.

A person’s reasonable expectation of privacy is an important concept pertaining to individual rights. Generally, protections afforded by the Fourth Amendment are effective to the degree to which the individual has a valid expectation of privacy in the particular place or item that was searched.

The Supreme Court has ruled that people have an interest of maintaining privacy in their own homes. For this reason, police are typically required to obtain a warrant in order to conduct a search in someone’s home. However, you may still ask, “can the police search my car?” Vehicles are treated differently than residential property under the law, as far as search and seizure are concerned. The Supreme Court has stated that warrants are often not required in order to search a car. In order to search a car, an officer only needs to have probable cause that the vehicle contains evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

A major reason that vehicles don’t possess a significant privacy interest like a home is that vehicles are highly mobile, making it difficult to access a warrant from the magistrate judge prior to conducting a search.

Probable Cause

The Automobile Exception

The police generally do not need to obtain a warrant in order to search a vehicle if they have probable cause for the search. This is often referred to as the motor vehicle exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. The two factors that allow this exception under the law are: the reduced expectation of privacy inherent with an automobile, and the immediate mobility of the automobile. Probable cause works essentially the same way with an automobile as it does with obtaining a warrant for the search of the residence.

Probable cause is determined by the facts of a particular situation. There is no single rule that can cover every potential circumstance. However, police are required to have a reasonable basis upon which to believe incriminating evidence exists inside a vehicle before conducting a search. Probable cause can be obtained prior to a stop from particular information received, or after a stop through observations made while the suspect is detained.

Plain Sight

One of the most common foundations for an automobile search is the plain site exception. If a police officer approaches your vehicle and notices drugs, drug paraphernalia, or other evidence of a crime, they are permitted to search the vehicle. From there they can confiscate the drugs and use their findings as evidence against you. This is another instance in which the answer to the question “can the police search my car” is “yes.”

Consent to Search

If as the driver, you give permission to a police officer to conduct a search, the police officer has legal permission to do so. However, the consent must be offered voluntarily. The police are not permitted to coerce or threaten a driver into submitting to a search.

Marijuana Smell

Michigan has a marijuana exception search. This exception gives the police the authority to use probable cause in order to search a vehicle based on the smell of marijuana coming from the said car.

Incident to Arrest

When police arrest the driver or passenger in a vehicle, they may have authority to conduct a search of the car, however, an arrest by itself does not necessarily give the police unlimited authority to search the entire vehicle. The incident to arrest exception is only valid in order to ensure the safety of the officer connected with the person’s arrest.

An additional rule applies that restricts the areas of search to only those locations in which a vehicle could reasonably contain evidence. For example, if the police are searching for the possible presence of narcotics, then a search of the glove box would be reasonable.

Inventory Searches

When a traffic stop results in an arrest and no one is available to take control of the vehicle to drive it to a safe location, the police may move forward and have the vehicle towed to an impound lot. Generally, an impounded vehicle is legally available for the police to conduct an inventory search. However, the police are restricted by law regarding the purpose of this search. The search should only be done in order to:

  • Protect police officers from possible dangers involving the contents of the vehicle
  • Ensure the owner’s property is protected while the vehicle is in custody
  • Ensure claims are not made for stolen, lost, or damaged items or property

If police come upon evidence of criminal activity during an inventory search, then that evidence may often be used in a court of law against the defendant.

Dog Sniff

Under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, it is lawful to perform police dog sniffs during a lawful traffic stop. However, an officer failing to have reasonable suspicion is not permitted to prolong a traffic stop in order to conduct a dog sniff. A stop may only occur for reasonable length as is necessary to complete the purpose of the stop. Any violation of this restriction is a violation of the Constitution’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

In other words, the answer to the question, “can the police search my car by prolonging the mission of the stop” is “no.” Police must send you on your way immediately after they conduct the purpose of the stop, which may involve checking the driver’s license, proof of insurance and registration, possibly running a warrant check, and if necessary – issuing a ticket.

Contact an Experienced Michigan Search and Seizure Attorney

If you’ve been charged with a crime in Michigan after a vehicle stop you believe involved an illegal search or seizure, attorney Maurice Davis of the Davis Law Group is here to help you. With extensive experience on both sides of the justice system – both as a prosecutor and defense attorney – he understands what you’re facing and can help you understand your options.

Contact Davis Law Group today at (313) 818-3238 to set up a free, no-obligation consultation.