The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects citizens against unreasonable searches. The amendment applies to government agents, like police officers. It does not apply to searches by private individuals. This protection extends to automobile searches, but it is not absolute. However, if a court finds that evidence was taken during an unlawful vehicle search, the court will not allow the prosecution to use that evidence.
Searches and Your Expectation of Privacy
A "search" can occur when a governmental agent intrudes in an area where you have a "reasonable expectation of privacy." Deciding a "reasonable expectation of privacy" involves two questions. First, did you have an actual - meaning subjective or in your own mind - expectation of privacy? Second, would the subjective expectation of privacy be reasonable to an objective, uninvolved person?
Consent to Search
In certain situations, you may refuse to let a governmental agent search your vehicle. The agent is not required to inform you of your right to refuse. If you agree to the search, it must be voluntary - meaning you weren't under pressure to comply. You also have the right to limit where the agent can search - the trunk but not the glove box, for example. You are free to change your mind at any time, even after the search has started.
Probable Cause to Search
A government agent with probable cause can search your car without you agreeing. Probable cause means a reason to believe the car more than likely contains evidence related to a crime. A routine traffic stop can develop into probable cause to search the vehicle. After pulling a car over for a traffic violation, a police officer might notice that the driver matches the description of someone suspected of stealing parts from automobiles. The officer also notices automobile parts in the back seat. These additional facts most likely create probable cause for the police officer to search the vehicle.
Search Incident to Lawful Arrest
When a police officer makes a lawful arrest, the officer may search not only the arrested person but also the area immediately around the arrested person - like the car the person was traveling in just before the arrest. However, this only applies if the person is arrested. If the driver is only given a traffic ticket, the police officer cannot search the vehicle. If a police officer has the choice to either issue a ticket or make an arrest, the officer must make the arrest in order to search the car.
A Criminal Lawyer Can Help
The law surrounding searches of vehicles is complicated. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed, specific information, please contact a criminal lawyer.