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Car Searches: When They’re Legal and When They’re Not

JBABB Criminal Defense Attorneys > Arrests  > Car Searches: When They’re Legal and When They’re Not

Car Searches: When They’re Legal and When They’re Not

Car Searches: When They’re Legal and When They’re Not

Search Standards


Typically, law enforcement must have a warrant to search your person or property. Cars present a unique exception where police don’t necessarily need a search warrant for numerous reasons. Because vehicles are mobile, law enforcement might not have a reasonable amount of time to obtain a warrant before the “property” (i.e. the car) is gone. Likewise, because traffic stops are conducted on public roadways, the driver should not have an expectation for the kind of privacy of one’s own home. This expectation of privacy is a key legal test used to uphold the Fourth Amendment, which protects us from warrantless search and seizure. For these reasons, law enforcement can potentially conduct legal car searches without a warrant under the following circumstances.


Probable Cause and Car Searches


Like any situation where police want to conduct a search, whether or not a warrant is needed, the police must have probable cause, which is a reasonable suspicion a crime has been, is being or is about to be committed. For example, if a police officer sees drug paraphernalia in plain sight in the vehicle, he or she could have a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity had, was or was about to take place. In light of reasonable suspicion, law enforcement could potentially conduct a legal search of a vehicle without a warrant.




An officer may conduct legal car searches—or search of any property—with the driver’s consent. If a police officer asks you to provide consent, and it’s wise to always say NO and then invoke your right to remain silent. Saying NO does not indicate guilt, and it can protect your rights. A word of caution: do so politely!



After an Arrest


Police may potentially search a car without a warrant incident to an arrest. However, the suspect must be unsecured and have the potential to access what is in the car. An officer may also conduct a search if he or she believes there could be evidence in the car related to the arrest.


Presence of Weapons


If an officer can view weapons in the car in plain sight, he or she may conduct a legal search if he or she believes the suspect could be dangerous and access the weapons.


Taking Inventory


After a car is legally impounded, an officer may perform what is called an “inventory search” to inventory the contents of the car, according to standard policy.


Protect Your Constitutional Rights; Call an Attorney


In the absence of one of these scenarios, a law enforcement officer cannot conduct a legal car search. If police search your car, you should consult with a Dallas-Fort Worth criminal defense attorney about your rights. Explain the circumstances of the search in detail. A seasoned attorney will be able to advise you on whether the search was likely legal or not and what you can do if your car was illegally searched and evidence was seized. Typically, evidence unlawfully seized can potentially be inadmissible at trial.



If you’re facing criminal charges in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, JBabb – Criminal Defense Attorneys is here to help. JBabb – Criminal Defense Attorneys will advise you on your rights and help you protect them. With law offices in Dallas and Denton, our attorneys provide compassionate legal services to Dallas, Collin, Denton, Ellis, Rockwall and Tarrant counties. Our experienced attorneys handle a wide variety of criminal cases including DWI/DUI, assault/family violence, and other misdemeanors and felonies. Call (214) 329-9433, email team@jbabblaw.com, or fill out our confidential online form to schedule a consultation with a Dallas-Fort Worth criminal defense attorney.