American citizens have protections from unlawful searches and seizures. The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution protects this right, and under a majority of circumstances, the police will need a warrant to search a car or house.
However, there can be exceptions when law enforcement does not need a warrant.
When an officer sees something illegal
Police can search a vehicle if an illegal substance is in plain view. For example, if the police pull over a person for speeding and then discover drugs in the car, then they can arrest the person for those drugs. It does not matter if officers lacked a warrant because they could readily see the substance.
After an arrest
Many individuals wonder whether police can search a vehicle after they have arrested the person for driving under the influence of alcohol.
In general, police can search a vehicle without a warrant following a lawful arrest. The police cannot arrest an individual when there is no evidence to suggest a crime took place. However, after pulling a car over, the police may administer a variety of tests to determine if the person is under the influence. In the event the person fails field sobriety tests or a breath test, the police can arrest the driver under lawful conditions. Following this lawful arrest, the police can search the driver’s vehicle.
If a vehicle is impounded
Police can also search a vehicle in the event it becomes impounded. If no one else is at the scene to drive a car, then the cops will have it towed. Once it is at the impound lot, the officers can conduct an inventory search. This is perfectly legal because the police are not necessarily looking for evidence of a crime. They merely search the vehicle to see what items are present.