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This post is only an overview of the automobile exception to the exclusionary rule. If you have been charged with an alcohol-related or drug crime based on the result of a vehicle search in New York, your traffic defense attorney can help you to better understand whether the search was reasonable and what defenses you may have.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects individuals against unreasonable searches and seizures, including vehicle searches. Although it is always preferable that police get a search warrant before searching your car during a traffic stop, it is not always practical to obtain one. Courts have thus created exceptions to the warrant requirement, one of the most significant being the "automobile exception" to the exclusionary rule.

Basically, the automobile exception works as follows:


  • Given the nature of an automobile in transit, sometimes an immediate intrusion is necessary if police officers having probable cause to believe that an illegal substance is inside are to secure it.
  • The scope of the warrantless search authorized by the automobile exception is no broader, and no narrower, than a judge could legitimately permit by a search warrant. If probable cause justifies the search of a lawfully stopped vehicle, it justifies the search of every part of the vehicle and its contents that may conceal the object of the search.
  • Sometimes warrantless searches of cars will involve police examining and even opening closed containers found inside. The scope of a such a warrantless search is not defined by the nature of the container in which the contraband is concealed. Instead, it is defined by the object of the search and the places in which there is probable cause to believe that it may be found.

Warrantless vehicle searches by police can trigger a number of legal doctrines, which go by names such as the "plain view" doctrine (and in some cases the "plain smell" doctrine), as well as raising questions such as to what extent the car's occupants may have a "reasonable expectation of privacy" with regard to closed compartments or closed containers in the vehicle.

The Supreme Court has worked to reduce the confusion that police officers have experienced in determining what parts of a vehicle they can search and what contents are searchable based on probable cause, with the trend being towards allowing police more freedom to search under the auspices of the automobile exception.

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