The “automobile exception” and warrantless searches of vehicles
Under the Fourth Amendment, police usually need a warrant to perform a search and seizure. However, there are exceptions to this requirement. One exception is the “automobile exception.”
What is the automobile exception?
The automobile exception allows police to perform a warrantless search of a vehicle under certain circumstances. The reasoning is that people have a lower expectation of privacy in their automobiles than their home.
Police can perform a warrantless search of a vehicle if the search is reasonable under the circumstances.
For example, a search is reasonable if the motorist consents to the search. A search is reasonable if there is probable cause to believe the vehicle contains evidence that a crime was committed.
A search is reasonable if the police think there is a weapon in the vehicle, or that they need to perform the search for their own protection. Finally, a search is reasonable if the motorist has been placed under arrest and the search is related to the circumstances of the arrest.
Limits to the automobile exception
The automobile exception ultimately relies on what is reasonable. Being pulled over for a simple traffic infraction alone might not provide enough of a reason to justify a warrantless search. However, if the traffic stop leads to an arrest on suspicion of another crime, a warrantless search might be reasonable.
In addition, while the automobile exception allows for the search of the vehicle, including glove compartments and trunks, it does not extend to a person’s property such as a backpack or suitcase without probable cause.
The automobile exception gives police the right to search a vehicle that they may not otherwise have under the Fourth Amendment. Still, the automobile exception can be challenged if you believe the search was wrongfully performed or otherwise violated the Fourth Amendment.