If the police pull you over, they may ask to search your car. But do they have the right to do so?
You may think invoking your Fourth Amendment rights will protect you during a traffic stop; however, that is not always the case.
The automobile exception
The U.S. Constitution protects you against unreasonable searches and seizures or intrusion by the authorities on your private property – with some exceptions.
One of these exceptions is commonly referred to as the automobile exception. It states that police are allowed to search a car without a warrant if they have probable cause that criminal activity occurred. Furthermore, they can search a vehicle if the evidence obtained from them is mobile and could potentially be moved away or destroyed if police had to wait for a warrant.
Furthermore, the officer can legally search your vehicle without a warrant if drugs or weapons are in plain view of an officer during a routine traffic stop. But, there are limits to the officer’s authority. If you have a closed container in your vehicle, the police are not allowed to search unless they have probable cause that anything inside is unlawful.
Police officers can also search a car without a warrant if the driver is arrested. If you are taken into custody, your vehicle may be subject to search. For example, suppose an officer pulls you over for driving under the influence and subsequently places you under arrest. In that case, they can legally conduct a search of your vehicle’s interior and trunk.
If you believe the police conducted an illegal search of your car, it’s crucial that you know your rights so you can protect them. This is particularly true if your arrest puts your immigration status in danger.