By Maya Kushner, Esq.

In some of our previous articles we have described the search and seizure basics, explained some of the exceptions to the warrant requirement, and even dealt specifically with searches of data on a cell phone. Another situation that comes up frequently is police conducting a search of a vehicle. If you are pulled over for speeding or running a stop sign, can the police search your car to look for incriminating evidence against you?

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution mandates that the police obtain a search warrant before searching any person, place, or item. However, two search warrant exceptions may come into play when police are conducting a traffic stop: (1) search incident to arrest, and (2) the automobile exception.

Search Incident to Arrest

Search incident to arrest is a recognized exception to the warrant requirement, which allows the police to search a person they just arrested, as well as his immediate surroundings (usually measured by the arrestee’s arm span) without obtaining a search warrant first. This exception was created for two reasons: (1) to ensure officer safety, and (2) to prevent destruction of evidence. The spacial limitation of this exception is important: police may search only those areas to which the suspect has reasonable access. For example, if a person is arrested in his living room, the police may search the couch he was sitting on, but may not search the upstairs bedroom. When it comes to searches incident to arrest during traffic stops, police may use the exception to search the passenger compartment of the vehicle, but may not search a trunk that is inaccessible from the passenger compartment (such as in a sedan, as opposed to an SUV). Furthermore, once the suspect is secured (for example handcuffed outside of his car, or even placed in the police car), then the police may no longer use the “search incident to arrest” exception to search any part of the vehicle. This is because it it unreasonable to argue that the suspect has access to any part of his vehicle once he is secured.

Automobile Exception

However, there is another exception to the warrant requirement that the police may use whether the suspect is secured or not: it is commonly known as the automobile exception. Even though it is called the “automobile exception,” it applies to all vehicles, including cars and boats. The exception allows police officers to search a vehicle without obtaining a search warrant first if there is probable cause to believe that the evidence relevant to a crime will be found in the vehicle. The important limitations to this exception are that: (1) police must reasonably believe that evidence will be found, and (2) the evidence they are looking for must be related to a specific crime for which police have probable cause.

The first limitation is judged according to police officers’ “knowledge and experience,” while the second limitation is more concrete: police may only search for specific evidence of a crime they have probable cause to believe has occurred, and they must look for that evidence in proper places. For example, if you are pulled over for speeding and the officer does not observe any plainly visible drug paraphernalia, any smoke or odors, or any strange behavior on your part, then the officer may not search your car for marijuana or other drugs, because there is no probable cause to believe that evidence of the specific crime of drug possession will be found. When there is probable cause to believe a specific crime has occurred, the limitation then dictates the areas of the vehicle police may search. For example, if a boat operator is arrested for smuggling people across the border, police may not search any closed compartments or containers on the boat that could not accommodate a human.

On the other hand, if police conduct a valid “automobile exception” search in proper areas for specific evidence and find something criminal but irrelevant to the search, they may still use it against the suspect. This is what happened in the recent case Taylor v. Maryland. Mr. Taylor was pulled over for speeding and running a stop sign. When speaking with Mr. Taylor, the police officer detected an odor of alcohol, and observed that Mr. Taylor’s eyes were bloodshot and glassy. Mr. Taylor also admitted to drinking a beer recently and performed poorly on the standardized field sobriety tests: all these factors were sufficient to establish probable cause for driving under the influence and Mr. Taylor was arrested. Based on his knowledge and experience, the police officer reasonably believed that open containers of alcohol (evidence of the specific crime of driving under the influence) may be found in the passenger compartment of the vehicle and searched Mr. Taylor’s car without obtaining a search warrant first. In the center console (which could accommodated a liquor bottle), the police officer found cocaine. Mr. Taylor was subsequently charged with and found guilty of drug possession. The Court of Appeals determined that the warrantless search was valid under the automobile exception.

As always, remember that police may search anything you own with your consent.