Your Fourth Amendment Right: Lawful Police Search of Vehicles

There are many scenarios in which you may wonder whether or not a police officer may lawfully search your vehicle. The Fourth Amendment protects against unlawful search and seizure without a warrant or probable cause. There are some situations that allow police to search your car with no warrant or probable cause, without violating your constitutional rights.

Can a police officer search my parked car?

A traffic violation creates probable cause for police to approach the car. 

Police in Milwaukee came across a vehicle that was parked within 15 feet of a crosswalk, which is against the law in the city. Police approached the vehicle and found a passenger in the backseat trying to hide a firearm. The suspect was later prosecuted for a felon in possession of a weapon and convicted.

The defendant claimed that it was a pretextual seizure based on a suspected parking violation, but the court overruled his claim and affirmed the conviction. This court ruling held that police had probable cause to approach the parked car for violating a Milwaukee parking law, and therefore had reason to conduct a search [1]. The traffic violation created probable cause to approach the car, regardless of any possible ulterior motives by the officers.

The Fourth Amendment only requires that searches and seizures be reasonable – it does not require them to resolve all possible exceptions before approaching a stopped car.

[1] U.S. vs. Johnson, 102 Crim Law 115 (7th Cir. 2017)


Can police search my container?

When a vehicle is legally stopped and the driver/occupant is lawfully arrested, police may search containers within the passenger compartment.

The U.S. Supreme Court case, New York vs. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981), established a bright line rule that allows officers to search the passenger compartment of a vehicle with the arrest of the driver, without a warrant or probable cause. On the contrary, in California vs. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565 (1991), the court requires probable cause to search a closed container.

Courts draw an inconclusive line between the search of an automobile and the search of the container itself. It is often left unclear as to whether or not the court will deem the search of a container constitutional. In most cases, the defense attorney will file a motion to suppress and bring the matter before the attention of the court. It is better practice for law enforcement officers to obtain an independent search warrant before searching a closed container in a vehicle.


Can police search a rental car?

The courts currently disagree on this issue as to whether or not the occupant of a rental vehicle, who is not listed on the rental agreement, has a recognizable expectation of privacy.

The question remains whether or not a driver has a reasonable expectation of privacy in a rental car if he is not listed on the rental agreement as an authorized driver, especially if he has the renter’s permission to drive the vehicle.

The U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing a case that questions whether law enforcement officers require permission from the driver of a rental car to search the vehicle if that person is not listed on the rental agreement [1]. The court is confronting lower court rulings which declared that the driver cannot challenge a search during a traffic stop because he was not listed as a driver on the rental paperwork. Police claim that the suspect consented to the search.

The courts currently disagree on this issue. A recognizable expectation of privacy is required for standing to challenge a search under the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. The case will likely be decided in 2018.

In 2016, traditional rental-car companies had over $2.3 million cars in their inventory. In 2015 alone, there were over $115 million car rentals in the U.S. Car-sharing services, like Zin Car, allow drivers to rent cars by the hour and are becoming increasing popular. A short-term car rental has become an attractive alternative to traditional car ownership. The frequency of police stops involving an unlisted driver will only increase as this trend continues to grow [2].

[1] Byrd vs. U.S., 102 Crim L 45 (U.S. Supreme Court, September 2017)

[2] State vs. Toolen, 945 SW 2d 629 (Mo. 1997)


Can police search a vehicle in my driveway?

The courts remain undecided if a vehicle parked in a driveway fits within the automobile exception. The Supreme Court will decide the matter in 2018. 

Police officers noticed a man on a motorcycle recklessly riding and violating numerous traffic laws on multiple occasions. Upon further investigation, the officers located the house where the motorcyclist lived and observed what appeared to be the same motorcycle in the driveway [1].

The police officers approached the driveway and confirmed the motorcycles serial number while waiting for the suspect to come to the front door. The suspect eventually confessed that he bought the motorcycle knowing that it was stolen, and he admitted to driving it in a reckless manner.

The court is considering whether or not the Moving Vehicle Doctrine applies to this case. If it applies, the doctrine allows law enforcement officers to go on the driveway and look at the VIN number.

The question remains if police may search a stolen motor vehicle sitting in the defendant’s driveway[2]. They are considering if this search fit within the automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment right against warrantless government searches. The automobile exception allows officers to search a vehicle if they probably cause to believe a crime is occurring involving the vehicle. The exception was intended for roadside stops where suspects could speed off at any moment, not vehicles parked on private property.

The automobile exception permits a warrantless search “of” a vehicle, but not “for” a vehicle. Both sides presented their arguments in court, and it is expected that the Supreme Court will decide this matter in 2018.

[1] New York vs. Class 475 US 106 (1986); Scher vs. US 305 US 251 (1938)

[2] Collins vs. Virginia 102 Crim Law 7 (US Supreme Court 2017)


Why would a police officer need to search my car?

There are numerous reasons why a law enforcement officer may deem it necessary to search your vehicle. 

The most common reasons we often see vehicles searched for:

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact our office at 417-882-9300.

By | 2018-03-02T17:36:16+00:00 February 26th, 2018|Legal News|0 Comments

About the Author:

Scott Pierson & Joe Passanise
The Law Offices of Dee Wampler and Joseph Passanise is a widely respected criminal defense practice which has represented adults and juveniles throughout the states of Missouri and Arkansas as well as surrounding states. We can help you make sense of all criminal charges that may come against you: from misdemeanor DWI to murder and other serious felonies. Our firm has specific expertise handling federal charges, serious gun and drug charges, murder, fraud, white collar crimes and sex crimes. We also have extensive experience in more common offenses such as, DUI/DWI, drug possession, domestic violence and theft offenses. visit our case archives to find out more about our past trials. Our office is located at 2974 East Battlefield in Springfield, Missouri and we can be reached at (417) 882-9300.

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