Warrantless Searches of Automobile Compartments


The law of search and seizure is guided by the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. This amendment, which protects individuals from unwarranted invasions of their privacy interests, requires that searches of private property be performed pursuant to a search warrant. Over time, however, the United States Supreme Court has allowed an exception for warrantless searches of automobiles. The justification for the exception is based upon the mobility of automobiles and the diminished expectation of privacy in automobiles.

Under the automobile exception, police may conduct a warrantless search of a vehicle if (1) they have probable cause to believe that contraband or evidence of a crime may be found inside the vehicle; or (2) the search is incident to a lawful custodial arrest.

When police stop a car based on probable cause that the car is transporting contraband and the location of the contraband is unknown, the police may conduct an invasive warrantless search under the automobile exception, including the entire vehicle and any containers inside the vehicle that might contain contraband. The key to a court’s willingness to allow such an intrusive search of a personal effect is that the vehicle itself is being used as a criminal instrument.

In addition, the entire passenger compartment and any containers which may contain a weapon or destructible evidence of the crime for which the suspect was arrested may be searched in a warrantless search incident to arrest. Such a search can be conducted in the following circumstances: the vehicle is lawfully stopped by the police; the occupants are lawfully arrested before the search by the arresting officer; the search is conducted contemporaneously with the arrest; and, the search is limited to the area where the arrestee could grab a weapon or destructible evidence.

More problematic are warrantless searches of car interiors during routine vehicle stops. In these cases, the stop must be legitimate and not a ruse to gain evidence, e.g., there is reasonable suspicion that the driver is intoxicated or the vehicle matches the description of a vehicle utilized during the commission of a crime. Due to the public nature of a vehicle and the extensive regulation of a vehicle, the police may look inside the interior of the car and move objects which obscure vehicle identification codes. Any contraband or evidence of criminal activity observed by the police from the outside of the vehicle could result in a search of the interior of the vehicle.

It should be noted that the individual states may, by interpreting their own constitutions and laws, afford greater protection to the individual than does the Fourth Amendment standing alone. Accordingly, the justification for the vehicular search could be greater than that required by the Fourth Amendment.