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Can the police search my car during a DUI stop?

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Can the police search my car during a DUI stop?


Many U.S. citizens understand the Fourth Amendment and its guarantee of security for their “persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,” unless there is probable cause that is supported by a search warrant.

What many citizens do not understand, however, is that their right against warrantless searches have been eroded when they are driving their car. Referred to as the “automobile exception,” this notion of limited protection is predicated on the idea that drivers have less of an expectation of privacy in their car than they do in their home.

Supreme Court Ruling in Arizona v. Gant

In 2009, the United States Supreme Court issued a new ruling in Arizona v. Gant, which altered what had been decided under New York v. Belton, a case that had already eased the rules for automobiles searches.

Although the court accepted the notion that warrantless searches remained “per se unreasonable,” they also acknowledged that there should be exceptions to a person’s guaranteed Fourth Amendment rights. Specifically, a warrantless search would be appropriate following an arrest if the following were true:

(1) The arrested individual was unsecured and within reach of the passenger compartment at the time of the search.

(2) When “circumstances unique to the automobile context justify a search incident to arrest when it is reasonable to believe that evidence of the offense of arrest might be found in the vehicle.”

Note that the reasonable belief standard is not equivalent to probable cause. It simply means that given the totality of the situation, would a “reasonable” officer believe that the driver may have potential evidence in their car?

Given this criteria, police officers who have arrested a driver for DUI may not have much difficulty arguing that they had reasonable belief that an intoxicant would be found in the car of a driver arrested for DUI, thus justifying a warrantless search.

Other Times When a Warrantless Search May Be Allowed

After the Gant ruling, it’s important to note that the ruling did not modify any of the other times when a warrantless search would be legal. In fact, there are several exceptions that provide an officer with the ability to search your car without a warrant, even after a DUI stop.

For example, if you have been stopped for a valid traffic stop, the police may search your vehicle if there is reasonable suspicion that an occupant of the car may be dangerous or have a weapon, although the search is limited to a cursory search of the unlocked areas of the passenger compartment of a car.

A warrantless search may also be justified if the police have not secured an arrestee and the arrestee continues to have access to the interior vehicle at the time of the search. This exception is referred to as the "Gant proximity rule."

Officers may also perform warrantless searches if they have probable cause that a driver’s car has evidence of a crime.

Finally, officers may conduct a search if the driver gives their consent to the search. Consent overrides any need for the state to prove that the search was justified on another legal or factual basis. Courts have acknowledged, however, that this is a problem because many drivers “feel compelled to consent or do not realize that they can refuse.”

What if the police impound my car without a warrant?

Another consideration if you are stopped for a DUI is whether or not the police may be able to search your car if it is impounded. Although a DUI stop alone will not generally lead to an immediate impoundment of your vehicle, if your car is towed, the police will be able to complete a comprehensive search of your car. This includes locked compartments, items in your car and the trunk.

The police are not, however, legally allowed to tow your car just so that they can conduct a search. They must also follow strict requirements to perform these searches after impoundment.

What should I do if I am stopped for a DUI?

While strict Constitutionalists and those concerned with unlawful searches and seizures are concerned about the changes to the laws, even with the changes, there are things you can do to protect yourself during a DUI stop or DUI arrest.

  • Always be polite, kind and courteous.
  • Never touch a police officer.
  • Step out of the car if you are asked to do so.
  • Do not be afraid to tell the officer that you are not consenting to a search.
  • Remain silent; do not say anything that would be self-incriminating.

Bottom line: You have rights during a DUI stop and DUI arrest to avoid a warrantless search. Unfortunately, there are legal exceptions that can justify a warrantless search, and police officers are often able to meet one of the legal standards and conduct a search, even without your consent or a warrant.

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