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Can Police Search Your Car?

Call St. Louis marijuana attorney Andrea Storey Rogers today at (314) 724-5059 about your Missouri drug charges.

A police search of your car is legal if 1) you give consent, 2) the police have probable cause to search your car, 3) the search occurs immediately after you have been arrested for a traffic violation (and other conditions exist), or 4) the search is conducted during an inventory of your vehicle after police impound it.

If police performed an illegal car search during a traffic stop and charge you with a crime, any evidence found during the search can’t be used against you in court.

“Reasonable Suspicion” is Required Before Police Can Pull You Over for a Traffic Stop

A police officer can’t pull you over for a traffic stop unless he has “reasonable suspicion” that illegal activity has occurred or is occurring. Reasonable suspicion to justify a traffic stop can be something as simple as a broken taillight, speeding, or any other type of traffic violation.

If the police officer scans your license plate and sees that you have a warrant, expired registration, or a suspended license, those all qualify as reasonable suspicion for the police officer to pull you over.

A Police Officer Needs “Probable Cause” to Search Your Car Without a Warrant

If a police officer has reasonable suspicion to pull you over for a traffic stop, he can search the passenger compartment of your car without your consent, and without a warrant, if he has “probable cause” to believe that the vehicle contains contraband or other evidence of a crime.

The “probable cause” requirement can be satisfied in various ways:  the police officer might smell marijuana, he might observe that the driver is behaving in a nervous or suspicious manner, or the police officer could see a bag of weed or a joint sitting in plain view in the car.

There is an “Automobile Exception” to the 4th Amendment Protection Against Unreasonable Searches

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures by requiring police to have a warrant to arrest someone in their own home, unless they believe evidence of a crime is about to be destroyed or the police officer is in “hot pursuit” of a fleeing felon. Police officers must also have a warrant to search the premises of a third party for a suspect.

There are several exceptions to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement, including the “automobile exception,” which allows a police officer to search your car without a warrant in certain situations.

When Can Police Search Your Car?

Here are some situations in which a police officer can legally search your vehicle:

1) The police officer has a warrant to search your vehicle. (A police officer can’t obtain a search warrant unless he convinces a judge that he has probable cause for the search.)

2) You consent to the search.

3) The police officer smells marijuana when you roll down your car window, thus giving him probable cause to search your car without a warrant.

4) You are arrested during a traffic stop, which gives the police the right to conduct a “search incident to arrest” if certain conditions exist. (The search is limited to the area immediately surrounding the person where he might grab a weapon, escape, or destroy or hide evidence.)

5) The cop sees a bag of marijuana or a joint in plain view in your car, which gives him probable cause to search.

6) As a result of a traffic stop, the police decide to tow your vehicle to the impound lot, which gives the police the opportunity to conduct an inventory of your car.

7) The police bring a drug-sniffing dog who “alerts” to something in the passenger compartment or trunk of your car, which gives the police probable cause to search.

If you are the subject of any of the legal searches listed above and drugs are found in your car, those drugs are admissible evidence that can be used against you in court.

You Can Refuse to Let Police Search Your Car

The police will never tell you this, but you have the right to refuse to consent to a search of your vehicle. When the police officer asks if he can search your car, calmly reply, “No, I do not consent to a search. Am I free to leave?”

If you refuse to give consent to a search of your car, the police can go ahead and search your vehicle anyway, but only if they have probable cause to search, if it’s a search incident to arrest, if they are conducting an inventory of your car after impounding it, or if they obtain a search warrant.

Please note:  You can refuse to consent to the search, but you do not have the right to physically resist the police officers when they search your car.

Drugs Found as a Result of an Illegal Search Can’t be Used Against You at Trial

In situations where the police officer has conducted an illegal search of your vehicle, any drugs discovered as a result of the search are not admissible as evidence at trial. You will need to hire a criminal defense attorney to investigate whether the search was illegal and, if it was, your attorney can keep this evidence from being used against you in court.

An Attorney May be Able to Get Your Drug Charges Reduced to a Lesser Offense

If the search was legal, your attorney may be able to negotiate a plea-bargain with the court to get the charges reduced to a lesser offense and keep the drug conviction off your criminal record. The outcome will depend on which court your case is being prosecuted in, your criminal history, and the details of your case.

If you have been charged with possession of marijuana or drug paraphernalia, call St. Louis attorney Andrea Storey Rogers at (314) 724-5059 to discuss your case and get a price quote for legal representation, or email Andrea at


  1. Rico Jackson on May 8, 2015 at 3:06 am

    I wish I had found this website earlier!

  2. Sledge on March 21, 2016 at 4:33 pm

    So if my car is towed in on no imspection sticker and impounded for that , they can legally search my vehicle without my convent even after refusing to let them during traffic stop ???

    • Andrea Storey Rogers on March 21, 2016 at 5:55 pm

      Yes, the police can legally search your vehicle without your consent if they have to impound your vehicle.

  3. L Johnson on November 9, 2016 at 2:58 pm

    What if I have a warrant and get pulled over but there is a licensed and insured driver with me that can take the car? Can they still search the bad at that point?

    • Andrea Storey Rogers on November 9, 2016 at 4:07 pm

      No, you can’t refuse to allow police to search the car simply because there is another licensed and insured driver there who could drive the car away. There are many ways police can search the car legally, and if you refuse to consent to a search, they can tow the car and claim it’s because they need to inventory it, which means they can search it and if it contains evidence of a crime, they can use that evidence against you in court.

  4. Karisa on December 4, 2016 at 11:54 pm

    If my boyfriend is being arrested and was being investigated for burglaries and they arrest him at my house and then come back an hour later and tell me that they’re taking my car, the car is under my name on the title and it’s legally mine but he registered and insured it end they said they’re taking my car because they believed it was used in a crime and they want to search it. And then I called the next day and they told me I’m not getting it back I’m a thousand percent sure the car was not used in a crime and it’s my car not his can they legally take it what should I do? They didn’t even have a warrant or any paperwork to provide me and they still haven’t given me anything I just want my car back it’s not even his car he just registered and insured it for me so the plates come back to his name. And they’re telling me I have to come down and talk to them and when I tell them that I have nothing to say because I don’t know anything and my car was never used in anything they keep on telling me that I have to come down there. What should I do? Answer questions

    • Andrea Storey Rogers on December 5, 2016 at 9:19 am

      Yes, police can legally take your car without a warrant in this type of situation. It doesn’t matter that the car belongs to you — if police believe your car was involved in a crime, they can legally confiscate it under the “inventory” exception to the law preventing unreasonable search & seizure. The “inventory” exception means police can take your car (without a warrant) so they can do a detailed search or “inventory” of its contents. If they find evidence of a crime, they can use that against you in court. Do not speak with the police by yourself without legal counsel accompanying you. Your lawyer can help you avoid saying something that might incriminate you. It’s very likely that if you don’t go voluntarily, the police will issue an arrest warrant and will come and pick you up at a time that is not convenient for you (for example, when you’re at work or with your children), so scheduling a time to go speak with the police with your lawyer present helps you control when your meeting with police happens.

  5. Roeuth korm on December 12, 2016 at 10:14 pm

    My wife is being charged for fraudulent items found in the trunk of a vehicle from a inventory search done by police. The incident happened over a year ago she was never arrested or read any miranda rights at the scene and she never gave consent to any search of the vehicle. There was no crime or probable cause other than she was in a single car accident. Can they use what was found during the inventory search and try to charge her with a crime over a year later? Please give me an answer asap thank you

    • Andrea Storey Rogers on December 13, 2016 at 9:24 am

      If police impound your vehicle, they do an inventory of the vehicle. If they find evidence of a crime, they can use that evidence in court against you.

      • Roeuth korm on December 15, 2016 at 3:38 pm

        Thats the thing my wife was never arrested or charged for anything. the car wasn’t hers nor was it stolen it says the purpose of police inventory search is to 1.protect owners property while vehicle is in law enforcement custody 2.protect law enforcement against claims or disputes over lost/stolen property; and 3.protect law enforcement from potential dangers located in the property. So the officers went beyond the scope of inventory search and violated my wifes fourth ammendment right by trying to charge her for the fraudulent things they found in the trunk during an inventory search they were supposed to just take inventory of the property in the vehicle not search for evidence of a crime when there was no crime from the beginning

      • Roeuth korm on December 17, 2016 at 12:14 am

        So the police can charge you with a crime from evidence that they obtain illegally? Because they never got any consent to search the car from my wife and nothing was in plain view to have probable cause ; why didn’t they arrest her at the time of the incident? Until now they want to file charges. That just doesn’t make sense. Does that mean since there was never an arrest from the time of the incident and no consent was ever given then all the so called evidence of a crime that was obtained from the inventory search cant be used against my wife in court right ?

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