Thirteen Things to Remember About Vehicle Searches

Since the invention of the automobile, police, lawmakers and courts have wrestled with the question of how motor vehicles fit into the Fourth Amendment’s declaration of “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” In the effort to reasonably balance the legitimate interests of law enforcement and public safety with individual citizens’ expectation of privacy, there have been hundreds of U.S. Supreme Court and California appellate rulings over the years on various aspects of vehicle stops and searches, including several significant recent cases. Here’s a summary of some of the actions police can and cannot take when it comes to legally searching vehicles for evidence.

  1. The November 2018 case of People v. Fews provided important clarification for law enforcement officers navigating the evolving legal landscape of post–Prop 64 California: It stated that evidence of marijuana can still be probable cause for a warrantless search of a person or vehicle, even though cannabis itself has been legalized. For more information, see our previous BOLO e-newsletter on this topic.
  1. However, in two other cases last year, the Supreme Court set new limits on warrantless police searches of vehicles. The unanimous Byrd v. United States decision stated that a lawful driver of a rental car has a reasonable expectation of privacy, even if the car has been rented by someone else and they are not listed as an authorized driver on the rental agreement. The case centered on a man who had received permission from his girlfriend to drive the car she had rented, which he used to transport 49 bricks of heroin. Officers pulled over the car for a traffic violation, noted that his name was not on the rental contract, ran his license and found he had an outstanding warrant. They requested his consent to search the car, but told him that they did not actually need his consent because he was not an authorized driver of the vehicle. The officers alleged that he gave consent, but the suspect claimed he didn’t and moved to suppress the evidence they discovered on the grounds that the search was illegal. The Supreme Court agreed, finding that a driver who has gained the permission of the lawful possessor or owner of the car has complete “dominion and control” over it and can rightfully exclude others from it. Since many offenders use rental vehicles to transport drugs or commit other crimes, but their criminal records may disqualify them from being able to rent a car directly, this is a significant restriction for law enforcement to keep in mind — particularly around airports, where rental cars are common.
  1. Also in 2018, the Supreme Court restricted warrantless searches of vehicles parked in residential driveways. Collins v. Virginia hinged on a conflict between two legal concepts: the “fleeting targets” or “automobile” exception (which allows officers to make a warrantless search of cars, RVs, motorcycles, boats, trains, planes and other mobile conveyances if they have both probable cause to believe there is something seizable inside and lawful access to the vehicle) and “curtilage” (which entitles the area immediately surrounding a residence to the same Fourth Amendment protection as the residence itself, requiring the same justifications to enter it). When the suspect in the case parked a stolen motorcycle in the driveway of his girlfriend’s home, as an overnight guest he shared her Fourth Amendment protection of the home and its curtilage. On the basis of the fleeting targets exception, police officers walked up the driveway and pulled back the tarp concealing the motorcycle so they could see the VIN and confirm that it was stolen. While Virginia courts upheld the search, the Supreme Court reversed that decision, underscoring that “an officer must have a lawful right of access to a vehicle in order to search it pursuant to the automobile exception.” Only consent, exigency or probation/parole/PRCS search terms could allow warrantless entry onto the curtilage for a warrantless vehicle search under the fleeting targets exception.

In addition, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office has compiled a number of other noteworthy legal decisions regarding vehicle searches:

  1. To justify a vehicle stop, officers only need “reasonable suspicion” of a traffic violation or criminal conduct, not probable cause (Heien v. North Carolina, 2014). They can use observed traffic violations to justify a stop even if they want to investigate suspected criminal activity (Whren v. U.S., 1996).
  1. Officers can order the driver and all passengers to get out of the vehicle, or back into it (Maryland v. Wilson, 1997). Once outside, if a driver fails to produce their license and registration, officers may search places in the vehicle where those documents would typically be found (People v. McKay, 2002).
  1. Officers can enter the vehicle to make a suspicionless check of the Vehicle Identification Number, if necessary (New York v. Class, 1986).
  1. If they have reasonable suspicion that there may be weapons in the vehicle, officers may search places and containers that could be concealing them (Michigan v. Long, 1983).
  1. Even if there is no suspicion of wrongdoing, officers can request the driver’s consent to search the vehicle (Ohio v. Robinette, 1996).
  1. A vehicle used as means to commit a crime can be searched for evidence of that crime without a warrant, as long as it has been lawfully stopped (People v. Griffin, 1998).
  1. The entire vehicle may be searched under the search terms for a driver who is on probation, parole or post-release community supervision. Under a passenger’s search terms, officers may search the area where that individual could have placed or tossed evidence (People v. Schmitz, 2012).
  1. Incident to the lawful custodial arrest of an occupant, officers can search the vehicle’s passenger compartment only if the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the compartment, or if there is reason to believe evidence of the arrest offense may be in the vehicle (Arizona v. Gant, 2009).
  1. If they have lawful access and probable cause to believe the vehicle contains evidence or contraband, officers can search any part of the vehicle and any container that could contain the item they’re searching for (S. v. Ross, 1982).
  1. Officers may check whether the driver has outstanding warrants, but can only extend a traffic stop if they have reasonable suspicion of criminality (Rodriguez v. U.S., 2015). They can run a K-9 around the vehicle without extending the duration of the stop (Illinois v. Caballes, 2005), and a “hit” by a trained police dog is probable cause to search the vehicle (Florida v. Harris, 2013).

These are very general summaries of complex cases and are not intended as legal advice, but they provide an important reminder for law enforcement officers on some of the parameters and pitfalls involved in vehicle searches — especially crucial in car-centric Los Angeles and particularly in the realm of airport security. For more detailed legal information, members can contact one of LAAPOA’s trusted law firms free of charge. LAAPOA will continue to monitor these issues and update our members on the developments that affect them.