Can the Police Search Your Car Without Permission in California?

April 30, 2022 by Sarah Edwards in California  Rights  
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The Fourth Amendment

The fourth amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects citizens from unlawful search and seizure. This means that, in many cases, police or other government officials cannot search your property at their will.

Generally, to enter your home, other buildings on your land, or your car, police must obtain a search warrant. If the police have a warrant, they can look through your car. This includes a search of every compartment, in the trunk, under the seats, or anywhere including the engine, wheels, tires, or under the body panels.

Under California law, there are a few instances where the police are allowed to search your vehicle without a warrant.

When Can Police Search My Car Without a Warrant?

Knowing when the police can search your car without a warrant can be helpful:

1. If You Give Them Permission

A police officer may not have a warrant but ask for your permission to search your car. If you grant them permission, they can begin a thorough search of your car. If they find anything illegal, that finding can be used against you in court.

This only applies if your permission is granted voluntarily. They are not allowed to coerce you into giving your permission for the search.

2. Illegal Items Are in Plain View

When the police stop you for any reason, they are allowed to look through the windows of your car. Suppose that they see illegal items like an open container of alcohol. In that case, they can arrest you and perform a more thorough search.

If the police notice an obvious smell coming from your car, such as the smell of marijuana smoke, you should also expect a more invasive search.

3. There Is Probable Cause

Your car is your personal property. It does have some privacy protections, but not in the same ways as your home. If the police notice evidence that would cause a reasonable person to believe that a crime has been, is being, or will be committed, this gives them the probable cause needed to search your car.

4. If You Are Arrested

If you are arrested while driving, the police will impound your car. Once the car has been impounded, the police must do an inventory search and list the items in your car. If they happen to find illegal items during the inventory search, it could lead to other charges. The items will most likely be used against you in court.

The police are not allowed to coerce you into giving your permission for the search.

The Best Protection Against Vehicle Searches by Police

While you may not be able to prevent the police from searching your vehicle if they have probable cause, you can protect yourself from trouble. The simplest solution is to keep your vehicle free from illegal items at all times.

By keeping your car free from illegal items like large amounts of narcotics, you know that even if the police search your car, they won’t find anything incriminating. If you have transported anyone who may have had illegal items with them, it’s a good idea to search your car yourself to make sure they left nothing behind.

What to Do If You Are Stopped by Police

If you are stopped by the police, that doesn’t necessarily mean there is cause for alarm. They may have simply stopped you for a minor traffic violation or because of something like a broken taillight. If you have been stopped and do not want your car to be searched, don’t panic. Just remember the following:

  • Be respectful: being argumentative can make you seem suspicious
  • Take advantage of your right to remain silent
  • Politely refuse requests to search your car
  • If your car is searched and illegal items are found, ask for a lawyer

It is vital to remember that anything you say can and will be used against you in court. So if the police find something illegal in your vehicle or place you under arrest, you should not say anything else until you’ve spoken to a criminal defense lawyer.

When Can The Police Search Your Property?
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Defenses Against Charges Resulting from a Vehicle Search

A seasoned defense lawyer may be able to have charges against you reduced or dismissed. The most effective way to do this is to prove the police discovered the illegal items in an illegal search.

If your attorney can illustrate that the evidence that led to your arrest was found during an improper search, they can file a “motion to suppress.” If it is granted, the evidence will not be allowed to be used against you in court.

Call for Help If You’ve Been Charged Because of a Vehicle Search

The Esfandi Law Group in Los Angeles defends people who have been arrested or charged because of something found during a search of their car. If you’ve been arrested after an improper search, you need an experienced lawyer to fight for your rights.

Need a Criminal Defense Attorney? CALL NOW: 310-274-6529

Seppi Esfandi is an Expert Criminal Defense Attorney who has over 20 years of practice defending a variety of criminal cases.

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Lara S.
December 3, 2019
Seppi had my case reduced to just an infraction, and thanks to him I was able to keep my job. Jorge was extremely helpful too, the reason I went with this law firm. Overall pleased.

How to Win Your Case

We cannot stress enough that you read, understand and follow these 10 basic rules if you are criminally charged or under investigation:

  1. Don’t ever talk to the police
  2. Do not discuss your case with anyone
  3. Everything you tell your lawyer is confidential
  4. Tell police you need to contact your attorney
  5. Never consent to any search by the police
  6. If the police knock on your door, don't answer!
  7. Realize the consequences of a criminal conviction
  8. Your lawyer (not you) will contact any witnesses
  9. Information on your cell phone is evidence
  10. Early Intervention is the key

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