When Are the Police Allowed to Search a Vehicle?

Interviewer: Let’s talk briefly about your vehicle being searched. When can and can’t they be searched, and what are the defenses that you find there?

Attorney Nebeker: Usually as it relates to a DUI and most of the cases that I see, the person’s been pulled out of the car, they’ve gone through the field sobriety test, and they are arrested, in handcuffs, and put in the back in the patrol car. Then the officer will do what they call an inventory search, subsequent to the arrest.

Inventory Searches and Probable Cause

They’re just looking for valuables and other contraband; they’re always looking for that. I see one or two where the officer pulls up, and the driver rolls down the window and the officer smells a strong odor of marijuana. In those cases, the officer asks the people to step out of the car.

He hasn’t put them under arrest but because of that odor or marijuana, but he believe that gives him probable cause to search the car. He is searching to try and determine where that smell is coming from.

A Law Enforcement Agency in Utah’s utilizes a Criminal Sniffing Dog

The other scenario with that is sometimes, the ploy is the dog. They have a dog in this area that can sniff out criminals. The dog will do something as it walks around the car and if it gives that hint or that indicator, then they’ll go and use that as probable cause.

Basically to search the car, they have to do it pursuant to an arrest or they have to have probable cause. Probable cause can be based on many different things, really.

Are There Areas in the Car the Police Aren’t Permitted to Search?

Interviewer: Are there areas of the car they can’t search? What about a locked trunk or a locked glove box or a glove box and trunk?

Attorney Nebeker: Most of the time they will search the trunk. They might have a hard time justifying searching maybe a locked box inside the trunk without a warrant, but most of the time they will get the keys and open the glove box, too, as a part of the inventory search.

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