Police Search of Vehicles

By Lorraine Gauli-Rufo, New Jersey and New York Criminal Defense Lawyer.

The law regarding searches and seizures is governed by the 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Constitutional case law arising from the 4th Amendment is highly fact-specific: rights depend on where an individual is (home, car, friend’s house, etc.), as well as the level of suspicion aroused (probable cause, reasonable suspicion, etc.).

The following is a brief overview of how and when a police search of an automobile complies with constitutional norms. For more information, contact a skilled New Jersey criminal defense lawyer.

The Warrant Requirement and its Exceptions

The general rule is that prior to conducting a search the police must possess a warrant. This is because, at its core, the 4th Amendment is about protecting the privacy interests of individuals and their possessions.

There are, however, quite a few exceptions to this general rule. This is particularly true when it comes to vehicle searches. This is primarily due to two reasons: (1) since vehicles are so mobile, it is practically quite difficult to obtain a search beforehand (“exigent circumstances”); and (2) within the hierarchy of what constitutes “premises” for the 4th Amendment, vehicles are not viewed as high on this list and are therefore deserving of more limited protection. (This is partly because there is less of an expectation of privacy in an automobile, as compared to one’s home). A New Jersey criminal defense lawyer can explain the warrant requirement further.

The following are two exceptions to the warrant requirement for automobile searches that, if met, will permit police to conduct a lawful search of the vehicle in the absence of a warrant:

  1. Criminal activity: If an officer has probable cause that a vehicle contains contraband or there is evidence of a crime or that the vehicle was involved in a crime, an officer may lawfully search the entire vehicle.
  2. Arrest and vehicle compound: If the occupants of an automobile have been arrested and the vehicle they were is was taken into police custody, the police may conduct a warrantless search of the vehicle.

To discuss automobile searches, or criminal law more generally, reach out to New Jersey and New York criminal defense lawyer Lorraine Gauli-Rufo at 973-239-4300 or at LGR LAW for a consultation today.

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