Tuesday, September 19A Lawyer Blog...!

If I Get Pulled Over, Does a Police Officer Have the Right to Search My Vehicle?

The Constitution’s warrant requirement often does not apply in motor vehicle searches.

Motor vehicle searches were obviously not a problem in Colonial days. But British officials used dubious laws to perform random property searches, and the colonists rather understandably did not like that. So, the Constitution included the Fourth Amendment.

This provision includes a search warrant requirement. Not just any warrant will do. The warrant is only valid if it is supported by an affidavit and probable cause. However, contrary to popular myth, the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit all warrantless searches. It only prohibits unreasonable ones. So, there are some exceptions to the warrant requirement, which are listed below.

If police illegally searched your car, a Ponca City criminal defense lawyer can probably exclude any evidence they seized. As a result, the Kay County judge may throw the case out of court due to lack of evidence.


Vehicle owners can consent to property searches. Apparent owners have this authority as well. For example, if Mike’s wife is driving his car, she can probably consent to a police search, even if she is not the legal owner. However, vehicle passengers hardly ever have apparent authority. If officers stop a car full of people, they cannot keep asking individuals for consent to search until someone says “yes.”

Furthermore, consent is an affirmative act. Rolling down the car window, not objecting to the officer peering into the back seat with a flashlight, or opening the door is passive assent, at best. That is different.

Beware of police officer tricks regarding consent automobile searches. People cannot limit consent. If you give it, officers can almost literally tear the car apart looking for contraband. Additionally, officers sometimes try to bully people into consenting. They might say something like “If you do not consent, I will get a warrant.” That is an empty threat. If the officer had probable cause for a warrant, he or she would not ask for consent.

Plain View

This exception is not technically a “search” exception, but it often applies in automobile searches. Remember that flashlight poking into the back seat? If the officer saw contraband, like drugs, the officer could seize it under the plain view doctrine. Partial plain view cases, like the handle of a pistol protruding from under the seat, are in a grey area.

Automobile Exception

If officers have probable cause to believe that an automobile contains evidence of a crime, they do not need search warrants. The automobile exception basically lets officers skip the Fourth Amendment’s affidavit requirement.

This exception does not just apply to automobiles. It also applies to all other moving vehicles, such as boats or bicycles. Furthermore, this exception is limited. Officers can only look in places where evidence is likely to be. They cannot search for illegal weapons under the hood.

Exigent Circumstances

If police believe that someone may be in trouble, they may enter without a warrant to make sure everyone is okay. This exception often applies in dwelling searches, but it could apply in motor vehicle stops, as well. Officers frequently stop to inspect stalled cars or other situations that may require assistance, such as two people fighting in a car.

While they are conducting their safety sweep, officers may seize any contraband they see in plain view.

Contact a Hard-Hitting Attorney

Police officers do not need warrants to search motor vehicles. For a free consultation with an experienced criminal defense attorney in Ponca City, contact Boettcher, Devinney, Ingle & Wicker. We routinely handle matters in Kay County and nearby jurisdictions.

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