If police stop you while you are driving, they may be able to search your vehicle without a warrant. The Fourth Amendment protects your privacy from government officials to a certain extent. However, there are circumstances where an officer can search your car and seize your property.
In a situation like this, officers must have probable cause that evidence is present where they intend to search. They can also search if they have a reasonable suspicion that you are hiding something potentially dangerous.
During a traffic stop
Generally speaking, an officer cannot search your vehicle if he or she has pulled you over for a simple traffic violation. He or she can only legally search your car in two circumstances. First, the officer must have a reasonable suspicion that your vehicle contains evidence supporting your arrest. For example, if an officer stops you for reckless driving, he or she cannot search for illegal weapons.
Second, you must be present and able to access the areas the officer wants to search. FindLaw states that a 2009 Supreme Court ruling made changes to what constitutes a legal vehicle search. In that case, police searched a suspect’s car only after the arrest. The suspect, handcuffed and in the squad car at the time, could not endanger the officers. The law now disallows this type of search.
After an arrest
Things change significantly if the officer arrests you. Sometimes, police tow and impound your car after placing you in custody. Even if your arrest has no relation to your vehicle, they can now search it legally.