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The United States Constitution and the New York State Constitution protect people in ordinary circumstances from unreasonable searches and seizures of their dwellings, persons or possessions. Accordingly, most of the time when police want to conduct a search for criminal evidence they must first obtain a search warrant.

Over time, however, courts, most notably the United States Supreme Court, have found certain exceptions to exist in which police do not need to get a search warrant before being legally authorized to look for evidence. Some of these exceptions relate to searches of vehicles that have been pulled over in traffic stops.

This post is only an overview of vehicle search and seizure law, and is not intended as legal advice.

If you have been pulled over by law enforcement, then the police may be able to search your vehicle at the scene based on any of the following judicially recognized justifications:

  • Consent. If a police officer asks you for permission to search your vehicle, and you give that permission, then no warrant is necessary.
  • Probable cause or reasonable suspicion. If the police officer has probable cause to believe that you have evidence of a crime in your vehicle, or if the officer has a reasonable suspicion that you may have something in your vehicle (for example, a weapon) that may pose a danger to the officer, then he or she can use these rationales as grounds to perform a search without a warrant.
  • Search incident to arrest. If your traffic stop results in an arrest, then the police officer is authorized to search your vehicle for evidence relevant to the reason for your arrest. Thus, for example, if you have been arrested on an illegal drug charge, then the officer can search your vehicle for illegal drugs.

Another way that police can search your vehicle without a warrant is when your vehicle is impounded. This type of search may be quite detailed, as it is not restricted in the same way that a search incident to arrest is.

Generally speaking, if you are pulled over and there is something in your car that you do not wish to share with the police, then you may decline consent when it is asked for and raise objections before any search is performed. In this way, your defense attorney may be able later on to challenge the grounds for the search.

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