A routine traffic stop will result in a citation and the release of the driver, but an officer has the right to extend a stop if there is a legal justification for it. During the extended stop, they may search the driver’s vehicle. If the officer does not have a reasonable basis to make the stop, such as when there is no evidence of a traffic violation or a crime, the search is unlawful. This means that evidence from the stop cannot be used against the driver. Even if the officer has a reasonable basis to make a stop, searching the vehicle may be unlawful if the officer has no reason to believe that the driver is dangerous or involved in a crime other than the traffic violation that formed the basis of the citation.
In other words, just because the officer has legally stopped a car does not mean that they can search it. This principle was tested in the context of rental car drivers who were not on the rental agreement. Although these drivers are unauthorized, courts have found that not being on a rental agreement is not sufficient to justify a search. Even unauthorized rental car drivers have some reasonable expectation of privacy in their vehicle. Only people who have stolen a car do not have an expectation of privacy in the vehicle.
Searching a Car After an Arrest
A police officer may have more freedom to conduct a search if they are arresting the driver rather than issuing a citation. Sometimes state law will permit an arrest on the basis of a traffic offense that normally would result in a citation. Following this type of arrest, the officer may be able to search the passenger compartment of the vehicle. The officer must believe that the driver might gain access to this area during the search, or they must believe that the vehicle contains evidence of a crime, evidence related to the traffic offense, weapons, or something that the driver could use to flee the police.
If the driver has been handcuffed and placed outside their vehicle, an officer will not have any reason to believe that the driver will have access to the vehicle. The scope of the search must cover only areas that might reasonably be expected to contain the items for which the officer is looking. However, if the officer arrests the driver and conducts a pat down, during which they find evidence of a crime, they probably will have a right to search the vehicle.
Other Ways to Justify a Search
Sometimes an officer may develop a suspicion of illegal activity based on seeing, hearing, or smelling something in the course of a stop. They may be able to search the vehicle in that situation, regardless of whether they arrested the driver. Or the driver may consent to a search to avoid a confrontation with the officer.
An inventory search is a search of a car that has been legally impounded by law enforcement. The police do not need a warrant, consent, or other grounds for a search to conduct an inventory search. This is because the search is not meant to find evidence of criminal activity. Instead, inventory searches theoretically are supposed to help prevent the theft of items in the car and prevent the owner from claiming that the police engaged in theft. The resulting inventory will itemize the contents of the car. Another purpose of inventory searches is to protect the police from any dangerous items in the car.
The scope of an inventory search varies depending on the state, ranging from a complete search to a very brief search. However, it can cover any item in plain view.
If the police find evidence of a crime during an inventory search, the driver may face an uphill battle in trying to get that evidence suppressed. They will need to show that the police broke the law or acted in bad faith, rather than making a good-faith mistake. Sometimes evidence can be suppressed if the police did not need to impound the car, the scope of the search was broader than the scope that was necessary or permitted in the state, or the police impounded the car simply to conduct a warrantless search for incriminating evidence. (There must be some real evidence to support these arguments beyond a hunch by the driver.)