According to the Fourth Amendment protection, U.S. citizens are protected against unlawful search and seizure conducted by law enforcement. In order for the police to search your vehicle, they need to have a search warrant, your consent, or a valid reason. Yet, there are several circumstances that allow police to search a vehicle without the owner's permission.
Law enforcement can search your vehicle without a warrant under the following circumstances:
- Probable cause due to evidence in the vehicle
- The officer's own protection and safety necessitates a search
- The officer made an arrest
So when it comes to vehicle searches, courts often give law enforcement more freedom compared to when police are attempting to search a dwelling or residence. According to the “automobile exception” to the search warrant requirement, courts have recognized that individuals have a lower expectation of privacy when operating a vehicle compared to being in their homes.
In addition, if law enforcement towed and impounded your car, they can search it. This inventory search can be as extensive as police wish it to be, and will most likely include unlocking and opening any compartments or foxes found inside the vehicle. However, the police cannot tow and impound your car just to perform a search.