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Can police legally search your vehicle during a traffic stop?

Most people have some idea about their rights if police show up at their door. We’ve discussed them here in the past. They may even know that the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects them from unreasonable searches and seizures.

Yet, it isn’t always clear how far these protections extend. Does this protection extend to traffic stops? If a police officer pulls you over for speeding or other suspected wrongdoing or maybe because you have a broken taillight, do they need a warrant to search your vehicle?

Vehicle searches aren’t addressed in the Constitution

The writers of the U.S. Constitution certainly couldn’t have pictured people driving around Alaska in Subaru Outbacks and Ford F-150s. They relied on literal horsepower for travel. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has addressed the question of whether and when officers can search a vehicle without first obtaining a warrant.

The high court has determined that officers don’t need a warrant to search a vehicle they’ve pulled over as long as they have “probable cause” that it contains evidence of a criminal offense. They also have the right to seize items that they believe are evidence under these circumstances, generally as long as they’re in “plain view.” For example, if someone has an illegal weapon or what looks like illegal drugs on the passenger seat of their car, that’s in plain view.

Why vehicles are an exception to the warrant rule

There are at least a couple of reasons why the requirement for a warrant doesn’t apply here. First, a driver could choose to pull away at any moment, taking the evidence with them (although that would be an extremely unwise and potentially dangerous move). Further, people don’t have the same expectation of privacy when they’re on a public street or highway as they have at home.

If you are facing a criminal charge after a search of your vehicle during a traffic stop yielded evidence of a suspected crime, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the search was legal. Alaska law states that officers need “reasonable, articulable suspicion” to make a traffic stop. They must also have probable cause, as noted, for a search. The best way to determine if the evidence in question can be used against you is to get legal guidance as soon as possible.