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When can the police legally search my car?

You were pulled over for a traffic offense, but the police searched your car and found something incriminating—maybe there were drugs or an illegal weapon. Now you are facing something much more serious than a speeding ticket. But you are wondering—was the search even legal? What gave the police the right to go through your trunk, glove compartment, and back seat? Unreasonable searches of your vehicle following a traffic stop are illegal under the Fourth Amendment, but what does unreasonable actually mean?

When the Police Can Search Your Car

Vehicle searches without a warrant can be conducted legally given the following circumstances:

Probable Cause

If an officer has reason to believe that there is incriminating evidence in your vehicle, they can legally search it. However, the reason for the search must be more than a suspicion or hunch. The officer must see something in plain view, smell something such as marijuana smoke, or have your admission of guilt for a specific crime.

Incident to Arrest

If you have been arrested, the police can search your vehicle for evidence related to the arrest. For example, if you have been arrested on suspicion of armed robbery, the police can search your car for a weapon, but only if you are within reaching distance of the vehicle at the time of the arrest.


If you have given the officer permission to search your car, anything they find would be admissible in court. However, the consent cannot be obtained under coercion or threat.


If your car is impounded after a DUI arrest or for another reason, officers can search the vehicle to inventory the contents to account for all of your possessions. If they also happen to find something incriminating, they can use the evidence against you.

All of these types of legal searches are fairly open to interpretation. A law enforcement officer can always claim they had probable cause after the fact, even if there was no observable evidence in the car. If you think the search of your vehicle violated your rights, contact our office as soon as possible.

Do You Need a Virginia Criminal Defense Lawyer?

If you think the evidence against you was obtained illegally, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney. Please contact us online or call our Fairfax, Virginia, law office at (703) 277-2811 to schedule your free consultation. We help clients throughout Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia.

Related Links:

  • Does hiring an attorney make me look guilty?

  • How to Get a Criminal Record Expunged

  • Virginia Search and Seizure Law