The 4th Amendment of the United States Constitution protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. This protection extends to people and their property, and applies in places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy. The 4th Amendment limits when and how the police may conduct a search of a citizen’s home, papers, effects, or physical person.

However, the 4th Amendment only protects citizens against unreasonable searches. In order for a search to be reasonable, there are some procedures in place that the police must generally follow.

Part of these procedures includes obtaining a search warrant. A search warrant is an order signed by a judge that authorizes the police to search a specific place for specific items believed to be connected with a criminal investigation. In order to obtain a search warrant, police need to provide probable cause; that is, they must prove that there is some basis of belief that there is evidence in connection with a crime. Police cannot request a search warrant “just because.”

However, not all police searches require a warrant before they may be conducted without violating a person’s 4th Amendment rights. There are some specific circumstances in which it is actually legal for the police to conduct a warrantless search. Some notable exceptions include but may not be limited to:

  • Extingent circumstances, such as ongoing emergencies;
  • A person consents to a warrantless search;
  • The object is in plain view and is clearly visible;
  • The search is administrative, such as to board an aircraft;
  • Stop and frisk, or an over the clothes pat down if the police have probable cause; and
  • The search is in relation to a lawful arrest.

Can Police Search the Trunk of My Car Without a Warrant?

Search requirements are much lower for searching for a vehicle. If police have probable cause that a vehicle contains contraband or evidence of a crime, they may search all parts of the vehicle in order to obtain that evidence. This includes opening any containers they may find within the vehicle.

However, it is important to remember that reasonable suspicion alone does not give the police the power to search the vehicle. An officer cannot search your vehicle if they stop a driver for a moving violation, unless they have probable cause to search the vehicle or the driver has given their consent. Probable cause for a search may be supported by the officer’s initial reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, but additional probable cause is required before a search may be conducted.

Some examples of additional suspicions include but may not be limited to:

  • The officer’s personal observations;
  • Another officer’s observations;
  • An informant’s tip; and/or
  • Information that the driver or passenger provides to the officer.

As you can see, police may only search the trunk of a vehicle without a warrant if the defendant consents to the search, and/or when the officer develops probable cause that the trunk contains evidence of a crime. Searches may only be conducted in the areas of the vehicle in which probable cause exists. For example, if an officer has specific, articulable facts as well as a reasonable belief that evidence of a crime will be found in the trunk, they may only search the trunk.

A very specific example of when a search warrant would not be required would be if a person’s vehicle was stolen in connection with another crime. The police do not need to obtain a warrant to search the vehicle before it is returned to its owner.

What Else Should I Know About Probable Cause?

If an officer pulls a driver over, and their suspicions then arise to a level of probable cause that evidence of a crime may be found in the passenger side compartment, they may not search the trunk of the vehicle without a warrant or sufficient additional probable cause. Officers make an assessment on the scene as to whether probable cause exists. As such, whether a search warrant needed will depend on the facts of each specific situation.

The exact definition of what constitutes probable cause may vary by jurisdiction. In general, probable cause refers to specific and articulable facts that point to a crime committed, or will be committed. These facts regarding the situation must be of such a nature that any objective and reasonable person would believe there is evidence of criminal activity.

Speaking specifically of the trunk of a vehicle, police may develop probable cause to search in several different ways. A drug sniffing dog may alert the officer to the possible presence of drugs, or if paraphernalia is in plain view that would cause them to believe that the trunk contains additional evidence.

Do I Need an Attorney for Assistance With Police Searches?

It is imperative that your 4th Amendment rights are protected. Thus, if your vehicle was searched by the police, you should immediately contact a skilled and knowledgeable criminal defense attorney.

An experienced criminal defense attorney can help determine whether the search was actually legal, and what your legal rights and defenses are. Additionally, an attorney can also represent you in court as needed.