What is the ‘Automobile Exception’ to the Warrant Requirement?

All warrantless searches are unconstitutional under the 4th Amendment unless they fit into one of a handful of recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement.

One of those exceptions is the infamous ‘Automobile Exception.’

In any case in which the police have probable cause to believe that a vehicle contains fruits, instrumentalities, or evidence of a crime, they may search the whole vehicle and any container that might reasonably contain the item for which they had probable cause to search.  If a warrantless search of a vehicle is valid, the police may tow the vehicle to the station and search it later.

It is also important to note that if the police have probable cause to believe that an automobile itself is contraband, they may seize it from a public place without a warrant.

In a nutshell, this means that police have fairly broad authority to search a vehicle depending on what they are looking for.  If there is probable cause to search the vehicle, the police can search the entire car and anything in it that might contain the evidence.  Thus, if they are looking for evidence of illegal drugs, they can look in almost anything in the car.  However, if they are looking for a victim of human trafficking for example, they could not search a briefcase.

The search may always extend to packages or containers that belong to the passenger.

Occasionally, police may only have probable cause to search a container in a vehicle — such as a piece of luggage recently placed in the trunk.  If this is the case, then the police may search the container only (the luggage) and not other parts of the vehicle.

As you can see, the automobile exception is quite broad and can carry important implications in cases involving possession of illegal substances, human trafficking and others.

Should you need assistance in a case you suspect might involve a search and seizure or the automobile exception to the warrant requirement, please contact the lawyers at Winslow & McCurry, PLLC.