The United States Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. A person’s right to expect privacy, however, can affect whether or not the court views a search as unreasonable and, therefore, illegal.

Courts typically accept that someone’s expectation of privacy would be lower in the car than it would be in the home. This means that, regarding searches of automobiles, there may be an exception to the requirement for police officers to obtain a search warrant.

Circumstances for legal searches

A police officer may search a person’s car if he or she possesses a valid search warrant. As well, the law permits a search if the driver gives the officer his or her consent. A search related to the driver’s arrest also qualifies as lawful.

If the officer has a reasonable belief that a search would be necessary to ensure his or her safety, he or she may conduct the search. Finally, having probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains evidence of the driver’s crime allows the police to search it.

Extended search scenarios

During the course of a lawful search of a person’s car, an officer might come across evidence that the driver has left in plain view. Finding such evidence of a crime allows him or her to seize it and pursue a more thorough search of the vehicle.

Although the term “plain view” seems to indicate the items that the police might see while searching the car, its meaning is actually broader. The field of perception extends beyond that of sight to include, for instance, the smell of drugs detected by a drug-sniffing dog or the sound of a concealed person attempting to call for help.

Following the towing and impounding of someone’s car, the police also possess the authority to search this vehicle. The incident that led to the decision to tow is irrelevant. As long as the officer’s only purpose behind impounding the car was not simply to search it, the court will permit law enforcement to perform this action. Thus, the degree of protection that the law provides can vary based on the location of the search.