Automobile Search (Update)

views updated


The Supreme Court has interpreted the fourth amendment, which protects persons, houses, papers and effects from unreasonable governmental search and seizure, to mean that governments may not conduct unwarranted searches where people have a reasonable expectation of privacy. In general, to conduct a search invading protected privacy, governmental authorities must obtain a search warrant from a judicial officer, issued after showing there is probable cause to conclude that evidence of a crime is discoverable at a certain place. There are some exceptions to this general rule requiring search warrants to conduct a search, and automobile searches constitute one of them.

Obtaining a warrant takes time, and the delay might permit an automobile to leave the jurisdiction before a warrant was issued or police executed it. All mobile vehicles, including mobile homes capable of ready movement, thus present fleeting search targets. The Supreme Court has also concluded—not without substantial criticism—that because of automobile uses and pervasive governmental regulation of them, persons have a lesser expectation of privacy in automobiles than in homes or offices. Consequently, because of an automobile's mobility and the lesser privacy accorded it, where police have probable cause to believe an automobile is, or contains, evidence of a crime, they may stop it and seize it, or, in the latter case, search it, without a warrant.

Police retain this warrantless search authority even when the automobile is not immediately mobile or even likely to be moved. Furthermore, although an automobile is immobilized once seized, thus allowing time to obtain a warrant, the Supreme Court—reasoning that delayed vehicle searches involve no greater privacy invasion than immediate search at the scene—has permitted warrantless automobile searches after immobilization. A rule requiring warrants for delayed searches would incline police to conduct on-scene searches, causing traffic problems or creating other difficulties for the police, particularly in arrest cases involving prisoner transportation. Consequently, when police have probable cause to search an automobile, they may search it immediately on seizure or subsequently.

The nature of the probable cause, and the evidence the police seek, determine the legitimacy and the proper scope of an automobile search. For example, probable cause to believe that a suitcase in a car trunk encloses evidence of crime justifies stopping the car and seizing the suitcase from the trunk, but not a more general car search. By contrast, probable cause to think that an automobile contains marijuana may justify a close search of the entire automobile, including door panels, upholstery, and any containers within the car. Police may thus search any vehicle parts or containers—whether locked, hidden, or generally inaccessible—that may contain the evidence they have probable cause to seek.

Police may stop and search a car when they have probable cause to believe it contains evidence of a crime, whether or not they have probable cause to arrest the driver or passengers. They may also stop a car to arrest the driver or passengers, but probable cause to arrest does not necessarily give rise to probable cause to search the car for evidence of a crime. Arresting automobile occupants for a just-completed convenience-store robbery undoubtedly justifies an extensive search of their car for evidence related to the robbery. Arresting a driver for an outstanding traffic warrant, however, does not justify an automobile search, for the offense is not one involving evidence that might be in the car.

A separate rule governing searches incident to an arrest, however, comes into play in automobile cases. To protect themselves and others from harm and to prevent the destruction of evidence, officers may, on taking persons into custody upon arrest, search them and any areas the arrestees may immediately reach. In arresting automobile drivers or occupants officers may, at least when those arrested are in or near the automobile, search them and any place in the car they may reach. Generally speaking, this rule authorizes a search of any area within the passenger compartment or open to it.

Police may also search vehicles after impounding them. Police sometimes impound an automobile on arrest of the driver or when the vehicle is found unsafe, illegally parked, or abandoned. To protect the owner's property, and the police from property claims, police may, pursuant to standardized procedures, conduct warrantless inventory searches of impounded vehicles and secure the items found within them. The standardized-procedures requirement is designed to ensure that police do not use their inventory search authority as a pretext to search vehicles when they lack probable cause.

Gary Goodpaster


Lafave, Wayne R. 1987 Search and Seizure: A Treatise on the Fourth Amendment. St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing Co.

About this article

Automobile Search (Update)

Updated About content Print Article