In every society, there is a constant balancing act between two major players: the law enforcement officers trying to crack down on criminals and protect the public, and the rights of that very same public to lead lives free from oppression or harassment. To facilitate both of these possibilities, states and governments have to implement a delicate system that keeps both sides in harmony. In some cases, however, things go wrong, so you must know your rights.

What Are My Rights?

The Fourth Amendment offers citizens the right to be protected against unlawful search and seizure of their vehicle. As a result, any officer who searches your car will need one of three things: a valid warrant, a valid reason, or your explicit permission. Failure to obtain one of these assets will violate your constitutional rights and render the search unlawful.

As a rule, courts will offer greater freedom allowing police to search a car than they would a residence; this allows the “automobile exception” of the search warrant requirement to be used, recognizing that the right to privacy is lower for a vehicle than a home.

What Reasons Are There for Police to Search My Car?

Before the police can search your vehicle, they are required to demonstrate that they have probable cause to do so. This must be a strong, unbiased, and factual reason, not based on discrimination or external factors.

In some cases, police officers may also be able to search your vehicle without the need for a warrant; this can proceed if they have probable cause to believe that there is evidence of a crime in the vehicle or that a search is necessary for the protection of the law enforcement officer (for example, they suspect a hidden weapon). If you have been arrested, and the vehicle search is directly related to that arrest—for instance, during a search for drugs—the officer will not require a warrant.

In addition, if you are in a situation where your car has been towed and impounded by law enforcement officials, those officials will have the right to conduct a complete and comprehensive search of the vehicle, including locked compartments. Police cannot, however, tow or impound your vehicle for the sole purpose of searching it.

What Happens If My Vehicle is Searched Illegally?

If the officer searching your car fails to meet the essential requirements—probable cause, possession of a warrant, or your express permission—they may be in violation of the Fourth Amendment. As a result, the search can be deemed illegal, and any evidence retrieved or produced could be rendered inadmissible if the case goes to court. For this reason, most law enforcement officials will be cautious to ensure that everything is above board and by the book.