Do Police Officers Need a Warrant to Search My Car?

Did a Police Officer Gain Probable Cause to Search My Car?

Unless a police officer has probable cause to believe that your car contains contraband or evidence of criminality, he cannot search your car without a warrant. This is due to the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects citizens against unreasonable government searches and seizures. While 4th Amendment protections are relaxed whenever one drives on a public road or highway, law enforcement officers are still required to obtain a warrant from a judge before lawfully searching a car. A warrant will only be issued if the arresting officer is able to swear to the existence of specific facts or information that the judge finds gives rise to probable cause. While difficult to define, probable cause generally means a “well grounded suspicion that a crime has been or is being committed.” It is more than “mere naked suspicion but less than legal evidence necessary to convict.”

Thus, if you are pulled over and a police officer asks to search your car, you are well within your rights to say “no.” If the officer proceeds to conduct a search in the absence of your consent and without a warrant, then this search is presumed to be illegal unless the officer is able to prove that a specific exception applies. The law provides for many exceptions (such as “plain view”, “border search”, and “incident to a lawful arrest”) but the most commonly invoked exception when it comes to searching a car on a public highway is the “motor vehicle exception.” Under Federal law, this exception allows a motor vehicle to be searched without a warrant so long as there is probable cause to believe the vehicle contains either contraband or evidence of criminality. On the other hand, New Jersey’s version of the exception offers more protection to individuals by requiring an officer to demonstrate more than just probable before conducting a lawful search of your vehicle.

In New Jersey, a warrantless search of your car is lawful if and only if three specific conditions have been met:

  1. The stop of the vehicle must be unexpected.
  2. There must be probable cause to believe that the vehicle has contraband or some other evidence of criminality.
  3. There must be exigent circumstances that would make it impractical to obtain a warrant.

The unexpected stop requirement means that the police cannot conduct a search of your car without a warrant unless the stop was made because of some unforeseen and spontaneous reason (such as for a traffic violation). In other words, the police cannot search your car without a warrant if they had been planning to do so ahead of time. This prevents the police from simply using the motor vehicle exception as a shortcut around obtaining a warrant by waiting for you to enter your car. As discussed above, the probable cause requirement means that the police must have more than just a hunch before searching your car–they must be able to reference specific facts or evidence that gives them a well grounded reason for believing that some sort of criminality has taken place. Finally, the exigent circumstances requirement means that the officer must be able to prove that the circumstances surrounding the search made it impractical or unrealistic to obtain a warrant before conducting the search. In order to meet this requirement the officer has to prove that circumstances made it very difficult to obtain a warrant at the time of the search or that the evidence was likely to disappear before a warrant could reasonably be obtained. Whether the circumstances are exigent will depend on various factors such as the time of day, the ratio of officers to suspects, and how likely it is that the contents of the car could be tampered with or removed.

If all of these conditions are met, then a police officer can lawfully search you car without a warrant. However if an officer conducts a search without a warrant and there is any question as to whether these conditions are present, then the search may be illegal. Any evidence obtained as a result of an illegal is not admissible in a court of law and must be thrown out. Thus, it is important to know when warrantless searches are permitted under the law because even if officers find contraband in your vehicle, this evidence can be thrown out if your attorney is able to prove that the search was not properly conducted.

Call Villani & DeLuca for Help if Your Car was Searched

If you have been charged with a criminal or motor vehicle offense, contact the law offices of Villani & DeLuca, P.C. Our experienced criminal defense team prides itself on honesty, quality, and the availability of our lawyers. Partner, Carmine R. Villani, Esq. has a wealth of experience in New Jersey criminal defense having served as municipal prosecutor and municipal public defender in numerous municipalities in Ocean County and Monmouth County throughout his 20+ year legal career. Mr. Villani is also a member of the National College of DWI Defense and one of only a limited number of attorneys in New Jersey who is trained in the functioning of the Alcotest breathalyzer by its manufacturer. Call 732-965-3350.