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When Do Police have the Right to Search Your Vehicle?

January 14, 2021

By van der Veen, Hartshorn, Levin & Lindheim

Recently, a man and woman were charged with several drug offenses after they were stopped on I-77 for a traffic violation. The officer that stopped the couple said that he spoke with the man, who was driving, and over the course of their brief conversation, the officer developed probable cause that illegal activity was taking place. That probable cause led to the search of the vehicle and the subsequent charges. The story may have some people wondering when law enforcement has the right to search their vehicle. Below are four times when a police officer may search your car.

Probable Cause

Police have to have probable cause to stop your vehicle for a traffic violation or because they believe criminal activity is taking place. However, under the Fourth Amendment, law enforcement must also have probable cause to search a vehicle if they believe evidence will be destroyed otherwise. A driver with bloodshot eyes may lead an officer to suspect they are intoxicated, which could provide them with probable cause.


You should never give permission for police to search your vehicle. Law enforcement officers sometimes tell drivers they are allowed to search the vehicle even when they are not. Or, they insist that it is in the driver’s best interests to allow the search. It is not. Never allow a police officer to search your vehicle and always inform them politely that you are aware of your rights.

In Plain Sight

When a police officer sees evidence of criminal activity, such as an open container or drugs, those items are considered in plain sight. However, for those items to constitute reason for a police officer to search your vehicle, the officer must be able to see them without entering the car. If evidence can be seen in plain sight by the officer from outside the vehicle, they can then search your vehicle.

During an Arrest

In most cases, law enforcement cannot conduct a thorough search of your car even if you are placed under arrest. Still, it is important to know that they can usually search the immediate area, such as around the driver’s seat and in the console or glove compartment. Even in this instance the police typically need probable cause but if you are under arrest, probable cause may have already existed.

Our Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers can Prove Illegal Search and Seizures

Although there are many times when law enforcement can legally search your vehicle, there are also times when they cannot. If you have been arrested and believe an illegal search is being used against you, our Philadelphia criminal defense attorneys can help. At van der Veen, Hartshorn, Levin & Lindheim, we know how to prove a search was unlawful to give you the best chance possible of beating the charges. Call us today at (215) 486-0123 or contact us online to schedule a meeting with one of our skilled attorneys and to learn more about how we can help.



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