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What are my rights if the police want to search my car?

Most of us dread the sight of flashing emergency lights behind us, signaling us to pull over. This generally means that a citation is imminent. But in some situations, law enforcement may want to take things a step further and ask us to “exit the vehicle.” Even worse, they may want to perform a search.

While we generally understand that the police need to have an executed warrant to search our homes, we may not know what governs vehicle searches. This post will highlight one’s Fourth Amendment rights as they apply to cars.  

Generally speaking, the police must have a warrant to search places where a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy. This includes one’s home, their luggage (outside of airports and transit stations), and electronic devices (especially cell phones).

There is also a reasonable expectation of privacy that applies to a person’s car. However, law enforcement may perform a “plain view” search of the car without a warrant. This means that an officer may look through a car’s windows to find illegal items in plain sight, or even partially hidden under a seat or in a door frame holder. They may not open glove compartments, armrest compartments or the trunk without a warrant or your express permission.

Nevertheless, if a person is arrested, the police have the right to search the entire vehicle.

Suffice it to say, unless you are placed under arrest, law enforcement may not search the vehicle except under limited instances. If you have additional questions about your Fourth Amendment rights, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney.

The preceding is not legal advice.

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