Whether you’re in California or traveling anywhere in the U.S., you are protected from unreasonable searches of your car thanks to the Fourth Amendment. Despite this protection, a warrant is not the only way that a police officer can search your car. There are several methods available to the police to be able to search your car without a warrant.
Still, an improper search of your car may be grounds to make evidence inadmissible in court. If evidence is suppressed, you may be eligible for a better plea agreement or even outright dismissal of your charges.
When you’re ready to speak with an experienced DUI lawyer about your charges, reach out to us at (310) 862-0199 or fill out the contact form on the right.
Method 1: As Part of an Arrest
An officer stops an individual because they have a reasonable suspicion that the person may have committed a crime. After they have stopped the person and conducted an initial investigation, they may feel they have sufficient justification, known as probable cause, to arrest the individual for a crime.
Once the arrest has been made, the officer has some rights to conduct a search of the arrested individual. This means they may perform a more intrusive search of the person than would be conducted during a Terry stop.
At this stage, the officer may also conduct a search of the person’s vehicle. The officer may do so if:
- The individual was recently in control of the vehicle
- The officer has probable cause to believe there is evidence of the crime inside the vehicle
Probable cause is a recognized level of suspicion that requires more justification than reasonable suspicion. The officer must be capable of articulating specific facts about a situation that would make it seem reasonable to the average person that there is a good likelihood that an individual committed a crime.
An officer witnessing a driver tossing an open can of beer out of their window may not have enough information to have probable cause for a DUI arrest, but has evidence of littering and a reasonable suspicion of DUI. If, when they pull the driver over, they find other open containers of alcohol and the individual smells strongly of alcohol, the officer may then have probable cause to initiate a DUI arrest.
Method 2: The Carroll Doctrine
Another method of warrantless vehicle searches comes under the Carroll doctrine. Named after a U.S. Supreme Court case, the Carroll doctrine states that an officer may conduct a search of a car without a warrant if:
- The officer has probable cause that the car contains evidence relating to a crime or is otherwise carrying contraband
- The officer has a reasonable belief that someone may move the vehicle, and therefore get rid of the evidence, prior to obtaining a search warrant
Under these circumstances, the officer may conduct a full search of the car. Since the clarification of California v. Acevedo, police are also authorized to search locked containers within the car.
Method 3: Inventory
When an individual is arrested, their vehicle may be impounded. Once the vehicle is impounded, officers are required to take an inventory of the car. This type of search does not require a warrant, but does allow the officers to use anything found in the car as evidence in a criminal proceeding against the owner of the vehicle.
Method 4: Consent
Officers also may seek the driver’s consent in order to search a car without a warrant. If consent is given by the driver, the officer can search the car as thoroughly as if they had received a warrant.
Police do not always ask for consent in a straightforward way. They may ask in a way that isn’t clear. They may pressure you, suggesting that a search would be okay if you didn’t have anything to hide.
Calmly asserting your right to refuse a search is not sufficient grounds to give the officer probable cause to search your vehicle.
Getting Assistance with Improper Searches
If an officer searched your vehicle improperly, the evidence may be inadmissible in court under the exclusionary rule. If there is a reason to suspect that evidence was obtained improperly, your lawyer may file to have the evidence suppressed.
Evidence that has been suppressed may:
- Weaken the prosecution’s case
- Result in a better plea bargain
- Result in the dismissal of charges
If you’d like to speak with an experienced DUI lawyer about your case and learn whether a search of your car without a warrant was valid, call (310) 862-0199 to schedule a free case evaluation.