Phoenix Criminal Defense Attorney
Let a Former Prosecutor Fight for You You Don't Have to Face Tough Charges Alone

Do Police Officers Need a Warrant to Search an Automobile?

When confronted with a case where evidence or contraband was seized from an automobile, one of the first questions we ask is whether the search and seizure by law enforcement was proper and legal. We want to make sure that the circumstance of any given case is one where police officers are legally permitted to search an automobile. We'll discuss a few instances in which police officers are excused from the ordinary need for a search warrant – consent, limited weapons search, and search for evidence or contraband pursuant to probable cause.

Consent - In any search, including searches of automobiles, law enforcement officers are entitled to search if they are given consent by the owner or driver of the automobile. In consent cases, police need not have probable cause or even any reasonable suspicion to believe that the automobile contains contraband or other evidence of a crime. Instead, the police officer can simply ask, even for no reason at all, if the owner or driver will voluntarily consent to a search. If consent is given, any evidence taken from the car will be admissible in the Arizona Superior and Municipal Courts. Note that the consent must be given voluntarily and with at least apparent authority (the consent giver appears to have ownership or control of the car or truck).

Limited search for weapons – Police officers are permitted to search for weapons in an automobile so long as they have reasonable grounds to believe there may be weapons in the car. Note that the search includes only the interior parts of the car. It does not include the trunk area unless the car is a hatchback type car in which case the search can extend to any area accessible to an occupant of the vehicle. Note that while the last rule appears to make it necessary that the passenger driver be inside of the car at the time of the weapon search, there is no such requirement. The "weapons search exception" to the search warrant requirement actually applies to traffic stop situations even if the driver and passengers are outside of the car at the time of the search.

Probable cause search - Finally, the police are entitled to search any part of the car, including the trunk area, where the officer has probable cause to believe that the car contains evidence of a crime or other contraband. There is no requirement that the police get a search warrant to search the car in this circumstance – the only requirement is that the police have probable cause. The basis for this search warrant exception is that cars are so easily driven away that evidence might be lost or destroyed if the police were required to take the time to get a warrant.