Do Police Need a Warrant to Search My Car?

The following is a video transcript.

You’re driving home after a nice dinner and you see those red, white, and blue lamps light up behind you. Your stomach drops as you look down to the dashboard. Was I speeding? Maybe he’s going to go around me. You slow down and pull over and the officer follows suit. You roll down your windows, turn on the interior car lights, place your hands on the steering wheel, and wait for the officer.

Unbeknownst to you, a pickup truck with the same color and model as yours was just used in an armed robbery in the parking lot of a nearby grocery store. The officer orders you out of the car, demands your ID, and immediately handcuffs you. He sees you have a license or permit to carry a concealed weapon and starts rifling through your truck, looking for your gun.

Even though the officer realizes you aren’t the robber, he finds the gun and accuses you of carrying it or transporting it illegally. He doesn’t like your attitude and puts you in the back of his car. Are you arrested? You weren’t given any Miranda warnings. What should you do? In a previous video, we discussed the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, what a search warrant is and the most common exception to its requirement: consent.

In this video, we’ll cover how an officer can search your vehicle regardless of your feelings on the matter. The Fourth Amendment presumes that a police search without a warrant is unreasonable. To beat this presumption, there must be a compelling interest in police or public safety, the preservation of evidence, or both. We’ll cover exceptions to the warrant requirement most commonly encountered when driving a vehicle.

Automobile Exception

First up, the automobile exception. In Caroll v. United States, the Supreme Court held that an automobile is more difficult to secure and detain than a building or property when the police seek a search warrant. This rationale has expanded to allow warrantless searches of automobiles because there’s a lessened expectation of privacy in vehicles. The interior of the vehicle is open to plain view and cars are subject to government regulations.

There is also a lower expectation of privacy in a car and in its compartments, containers, and packages contained or transported inside. The law requires police have a reasonable suspicion that a violation of the law has occurred to instigate a traffic stop. Then, the police must establish probable cause that the car or its compartments and containers hold evidence of a crime for a legal warrantless search.

Arrest Exception

Now, let’s talk about the search incident to arrest exception. Courts have long held it reasonable for a police officer to search a person who is placed under arrest for weapons and evidence of a crime. The original rule made it reasonable to search an arrested person’s body and clothing but was later expanded to include any objects the person may have in their possession.

In Chimel v. California, the Supreme Court increased the search area to any place within the person’s immediate control at the time they’re arrested, because an arrested person could lunge or grab for a weapon or evidence lying nearby. This is known as the Wingspan Rule. Let’s visit how these two exceptions play out together during roadside stops.

In Belton v. New York, the Supreme Court ruled that if a driver was arrested for any reason, the driver and the car’s interior (including containers or bags) could be searched by police without a warrant. However, the police must still have probable cause that a crime has been committed or will be committed to search the trunk without a warrant. The Supreme Court expanded these rules to include when a person is outside of a car they just exited, their vehicle may be searched if it is reasonable to believe that it may contain evidence related to the offense for which they were arrested. However, the Supreme Court has limited this type of warrantless search in Arizona v. Gant, so that if a person is no longer able to access the inside of the car, or there is no probable cause to believe that it contains evidence of the offense, the police cannot proceed with a warrantless search. Finally, courts have long held that police may search an arrested person’s entire vehicle and trunk when it’s impounded. This is known as the Inventory Rule.

Returning to our roadside example, the officer had reasonable suspicion to stop you because of the similar truck involved in a robbery. It was also reasonable to order you out of your truck and detain you to make sure you weren’t the bad guy. Finally, most courts would likely find it reasonable for him to search your truck and seize your firearm if you were arrested for a weapons violation, thanks to the warrant exceptions we’ve just discussed. What if the officer was completely wrong about arresting you? You’d most likely avoid a conviction, but not without a free ride to jail and an introduction to the pains of getting your gun back from the police after your case is closed.

In the meantime, if you have any questions about the automobile exceptions or warrants in general call U.S. LawShield and ask to speak to your Independent Program Attorney today.

First Aid for Gunshot Wounds 2A Institute

Comment section

31 comments on “Do Police Need a Warrant to Search My Car?

  1. If you have a license to carry, the officer is wrong to consider it a crime for you to have a gun in your car.

  2. Texas does not require a person to have a valid handgun license in order to carry a loaded handgun in a motor vehicle or watercraft if the vehicle is owned by the person or under the person’s control.

  3. I gather here that we are really without rights to deny search of our vehicles or ourselves and baggage.

  4. I agree with Robert – you do not have to have a CHL to carry in your vehicle in Texas. So without a weapons violation what right does the officer have to take your weapon?

  5. I would like a follow up about the legality of an officer in Texas accusing you of transporting a firearm illegally. I am assuming that as these articles may be written for all states via US law shield that is the reason. Given that it may be prudent in the future to provide more context, such as the state or location the event happens, or better yet discuss the nuances of the situation in various locations.

  6. I usually find Emily Taylor’s videos spot-on accurate, however I too am confused in this instance? If this scenario is occurring in Texas, I don’t see how it would play out as presented. The Driver could be carrying under the Motorist Protect Act (MPA) at a minimum, but it’s noted in the video she has a CHL/LTC? “The officer orders you out of the car, demands your ID, and immediately handcuffs you. HE SEES YOU HAVE A LICENSE OR PERMIT TO CARRY A CONCEALED WEAPON and starts rifling through your truck, looking for your gun.

    (She seems to have a valid License/Permit, correct?)

    Even though the officer realizes you aren’t the robber, HE FINDS THE GUN AND ACCUSES YOU OF CARRYING IT OR TRANSPORTING IT ILLEGALLY. He doesn’t like your attitude and puts you in the back of his car. Are you arrested? You weren’t given any Miranda warnings.

    (Especially with the License/Permit, how could she be carrying/transporting it illegally?)

    Finally, most courts would likely find it reasonable for him to search your truck and seize your firearm IF YOU WERE ARRESTED FOR A WEAPONS VIOLATION, thanks to the warrant exceptions we’ve just discussed.

    (What would the Weapons Violation even be?)

    Again if this is in Texas, or another State where your permit is recognized/accepted – why would this even progress?

    Even though Emily Taylor doesn’t note the location, I can only “assume” this would apply if you were in a State that doesn’t recognize/accept your CHL/LTC (like New York) and you’re firearm was discovered in relation to another matter?

  7. Question – Based on this message, if other passengers are in the vehicle, and they also have a Right to Carry License, are they going to arrested also?

  8. Mistake or not, arresting him just gave him a police record. Every time his name is run that’ll show up even though it was dismissed. Why can’t the state expunge that from his record free of charge??

  9. Seems to me US Law sheild writers publish
    Articles to promote fear in its customers.
    Let me be clear carrying a firearm you are at my lower risk of such action IE unlawful search of your vehicle, you have already been criminally scrutinized by The state & the FBI you accepted the responsibility to carry and the extra scrutinizes don’t be in fear of these silly videos. Just be mindful of your obligations to carry!

  10. What if I lock the vehicle when exiting upon the officer’s demands? Can they break in after detaining me without miranda?

  11. Likewise in Florida. Any non- prohibited person can legally carry a firearm in their car ad looking as it is ‘securely encased’.

  12. Ohio allows open carry with no liscense so do not conceal in your vehicle?

  13. What about a travel trailer? When passing through another state or even in your own state do the police have a right to search your trailer in a situation as described above? A lot of people carry a firearm in their trailer for protection. Also a travel trailer is considered a second home by the IRS

  14. In the example video above, the driver has a legal firearm and CWL. The commentatoer mentioned the difficulty of regaining possession of ones firearm after the fact and no charges made to the driver.
    Why is it so difficult to acquire ones legal firearm afterwards?

  15. The situation about arrest for having a gun even with a valid permit depends on a lot of factors. The most obvious one is that ones permit is in a different state that the stop. A Virginia permit is not valid in DC or Maryland.

  16. What weapons violation??? Even ignoring that in the vast majority of states, having a CCL means that you are not violating the law by carrying a gun in your car, he had no reasonable suspicion, let alone probable cause, to believe you were carrying a gun in the truck until after he searched it (illegally).

    Yes, he would have reasonable suspicion to stop you, order you out, detail you, and even pat you down. But having a CCL does NOT constitute reasonable suspicion of ANYTHING, other than the fact that you’ve completed whatever the requirements are for you to receive such a license. It absolutely is NOT a legal justification for searching your vehicle once he’s removed you from it and cuffed you. The moment he realized that you were not a suspect in the armed robbery, which was his only legal justification for pulling you over in the first place, his only legal action at that point is to end the stop. The search that uncovered the gun was illegal.

  17. You stipulated AFTER he knew the person WASN’T the bad guy, he made his search. He was NOT under arrest, and in CO, your car is like your house, and you can have a gun it whenever you want, as long as you’re not committing a crime . The key is NOT under arrest. The victim (person being stopped) is TOTALLY justified in having a bad attitude. If it was me, I would obviously follow his orders at first, but if he admits I’m not “the guy”, that’s when I would (non-physically) push back, which is WELL within my rights, because the law ONLY requires me to follow LAWFUL LE orders, and those orders become UNLAWFUL, when he acknowledges I have committed no crime. Also, “suspicion” is NOT enough, he must have reasonable cause to believe I have committed the crime. These things have NOT changed since I went through my LE education many years ago. Also, this example includes EGREGIOUS behavior on the officer’s part, and, if it was me, he pay DEARLY for it later.

  18. I found the content of this article on the subject of Warrantless Searches of automobiles to be a thourough overview, not an indepth explanation with exceptions (such as RV Motor Homes being a combination of motor vehicle and home).

    I believe the example using a handgun in this article was not the best item of focus for the detention or arrest, but rather it was an attempt to make the article’s topic more relavant to the purpose of US Lawshield. However, as is the case many times when dealing with 2nd Amendment issues and permitting, there is a wide, varying assortment of state laws and local ordinances that can be intertwined in 4th Amendment issues. As apparent in the few comments made thusfar on this article.

    This is why we need a standard Federal law or a clear Supreme Court ruling on the issue of carrying firearms (handguns in particular) applicable across state lines to help prevent out-of-state persons from being, unknowing, “By The Book” criminals.

    It is a shame that (with supporting, historical documentation left by our Founding Fathers and the understanding of time period, contectual verbage use) that such a carefully crafted 2nd Amendment is misunderstood by so many.

  19. You should add more information. All you talked about was the rights of the police. What rights etc. does the person that got pulled over have?

  20. “unless” you do not qualify to possess a firearm (ie history of felony conviction or involved in any gang related activity or happen to be a proven gang member). I was wondering if the above case of being stopped by LEOs because you match the description of another criminal would make any evidence they found in that warrantless search that was related to an unrelated
    crime that you perpetrated be considered illegally obtained evidence since no warrant or probable cause existed to be stopped for your own crime.

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