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When Can Police Search Your Car?

Posted by Jason English | Nov 10, 2022 | 0 Comments

Many people ask, “When can police search your car?” An experienced criminal defense lawyer from Jason English Law can explain your legal rights.

If you were recently stopped by police who then searched your vehicle, you may be asking, “When can police search your car?” If the search was not legal, then the evidence that police secured during the search may be suppressed. An experienced criminal defense lawyer from Jason English Law can work with you to determine whether the underlying search in your case was justified. Consider calling (512) 454-7548 to schedule a confidential consultation today.

Reasonable Suspicion Necessary to Justify a Stop

Before determining whether the search was necessary, it may be best to first analyze whether the traffic stop that led to the search was justified. For a law enforcement officer to stop someone in traffic, he or she must have reasonable suspicion that the driver has committed a crime or traffic violation. Reasonable suspicion is more than an officer simply having a hunch, but it does not rise to the higher level of probable cause that is usually required to justify a search. Nevertheless, reasonable suspicion requires that the officer have some articulable facts to justify the stop. An officer cannot simply stop a motorist because the officer did not like the way the driver looked or “had a feeling” that the driver was committing a crime.

When Police Can Search a Car

Many people ask, “When can police search your car?” Some of the times when police may be permitted to search a person's vehicle include:

  • With a warrant
  • With probable cause
  • With consent
  • In plain view
  • After the driver is arrested
  • After the vehicle is impounded


With a Warrant

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, according to the United States Congress, gives people the right to be free from unreasonable searches. Typically, an unreasonable search is one where conducted without a warrant based on probable cause. If law enforcement has a valid warrant supported by probable cause and signed by a judge within the jurisdiction, they can search a vehicle. However, the search must be confined to the spaces and items directly identified in the search warrant application. Without a valid warrant, law enforcement will need one of the other exceptions outlined below to search a vehicle.


With Probable Cause

An important exception to the requirement of a warrant is when a law enforcement officer has probable cause. If an officer has reason to believe that a crime is or was being committed and that the vehicle contains evidence of that criminal activity, then the officer is said to have probable cause.

In some cases, probable cause may not arise until after law enforcement conducts a routine traffic stop, asks questions of the driver, and analyzes the area for clues that a crime has been committed. Relevant evidence that may give rise to probable cause can include:

  • The presence of drugs
  • The smell of drugs or alcohol
  • Witness statements
  • Driver admissions to questions
  • A reasonable belief that a vehicle search is necessary to protect the officer's safety


With Consent

A law enforcement officer can ask the driver for permission to search his or her vehicle. If the driver gives the officer consent, the officer will have the right to search the vehicle and use any evidence found against the driver as a suspect in a criminal case. However, if the driver does not give consent, and the officer searches the vehicle anyway, any evidence found during the search may be suppressed if the court finds that the search was illegal.


In Plain View

According to the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, there is an exception to make an arrest or conduct a search when evidence of a crime is in plain view. For example, if a law enforcement officer pulls a driver over for a broken taillight and then sees drugs on the console, the officer could seize the drugs and use them as evidence to conduct a more thorough search of the vehicle. Evidence in plain view becomes probable cause. This concept also applies to “plain smell” in cases where an officer smells drugs or a police canine detects drugs by sniffing.


After the Driver Is Arrested

Another exception to the warrant requirement is if a law enforcement officer arrests the driver and officers search the vehicle incident to that arrest. This exception generally only allows a law enforcement officer to search in the area where the suspect could reach inside the car.


After the Vehicle Is Impounded

If law enforcement impounds a vehicle, they usually conduct a search in order to create an inventory of all the items in the vehicle to avoid liability in case of loss or damage to the owner's property. Law enforcement officers can generally use what they find during an inventory search as evidence against the driver.


Why Do Officers Touch the Back of Your Car?

Sometimes a police officer may touch the rear of a car at the beginning of a traffic stop. There may be several reasons for this action, including:

  • To check the condition of the vehicle
  • To inspect a taillight or check for some type of vehicle violation
  • To leave behind evidence of the stop in case the officer is hurt or killed during the stop
  • To reassure the driver that the officer is there to help


What To Do If You Are Stopped by Police

If you are stopped by police, it is important to remain calm and remember your legal rights. A skilled attorney from Jason English Law may be able to help if your traffic stop turns into an arrest. Keep these guidelines in mind if you find yourself involved in a traffic stop:

  • Be polite but do not provide any incriminating information since anything you say can be used against you
  • Do not consent to any searches
  • Do not consent to field sobriety tests
  • Remember that you have the right to remain silent, and you can exercise that right if you are worried that you might say something incriminating
  • If you are arrested, ask the officer to let you contact someone who can retrieve your car to prevent the vehicle from being impounded and being subject to an inventory search


Contact an Experienced Criminal Defense Lawyer for Help

If a law enforcement officer recently searched your vehicle during a traffic stop, you may be wondering when can police search your car? A knowledgeable criminal defense lawyer can investigate the circumstances surrounding the search and help you to develop a defense strategy based on the specifics of your case. Consider contacting Jason English Law by calling (512) 454-7548 to schedule a confidential case review.

About the Author

Jason English

Jason English grew up in his dad's personal injury law practice in Tarrant County, graduated from Texas A&M before getting his law degree from St. Marys University School of Law. Initially he worked in his father's firm on personal injury, wills and probate, as well as, family law cases. Soo...


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