In Arizona, people are protected against an unlawful vehicle search or seizure by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. While the Fourth Amendment requires officers to get search warrants before they search your property, there are several exceptions to the warrant requirement that allow them to search without a search warrant.
Vehicle searches are treated differently than searches of your home, and police are generally allowed to conduct warrantless searches of vehicles as long as they have probable cause.
Several other exceptions also allow police to search vehicles without warrants, including consent, searches incident to an arrest, inventory searches, plain view searches, and searches based on reasonable suspicion. We’ll take a brief look at each of these exceptions below.
Warrantless Searches Based on Probable Cause
In 1925, the U.S. Supreme Court established the mobile conveyance exception to the search warrant requirement in Carroll v. United States. In their decision, Supreme Court distinguished vehicles from homes, noting that vehicles can easily be moved away from a traffic stop, and evidence could be destroyed.
As long as police have probable cause, they can search your car without a warrant under the mobile conveyance exception without it being considered an unlawful search.
An officer has probable cause when a reasonably prudent person in the same situation would believe that evidence of a crime is likely located inside of a vehicle. However, only the areas in which the suspected evidence would likely be located can be searched.
For example, if a police officer has probable cause to believe that you stole your neighbor’s 60-inch television and that it is likely hidden in your car, he or she can search your vehicle’s trunk. However, the officer would not have probable cause to search your glove box since a television would not fit inside.
If a police officer pulled you over for a minor traffic violation, he or she will generally not have probable cause to support a warrantless search of your vehicle. However, if your conduct following the stop allows the officer to develop probable cause that evidence might be located in your vehicle, he or she can search without a warrant.
Consider this, if you are stopped for speeding, the officer will not be able to search your car based only on that. However, if he or she smells alcohol on your breath, he or she can search your car for open containers of alcohol.