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What Is Fair Game During a Vehicle Search?

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides protection to persons to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures by police. Generally, police officers must have a warrant in order to search and seize any of a defendant's belongings or possessions. There are some exceptions to this general rule of thumb, however, in the case of a vehicle search.

Automobile Exception

There is an automobile exception to the usual requirement to have a warrant to conduct a search and seizure. It is a legal premise that states if a police officer has probable cause to believe that your vehicle contains evidence of a crime that has been committed or any contraband, then the police are able to search the vehicle without a warrant. Additionally, if the police officer has sufficient probable cause to believe the vehicle is contraband, then he or she can search and even seize the vehicle itself without a warrant. An example of when a vehicle may be deemed contraband itself can occur in an instance when the vehicle is used for transporting illegal drugs.

Permissible Scope of Search

If a police officer has probable cause to conduct a vehicle search, the automobile exception allows the officer to search the entire vehicle. By "entire vehicle," that means a police officer is permitted to search the car's trunk, glove compartment or console, and all containers in the vehicle that may contain the object they have probable cause to believe might be found in the vehicle. They must, however, stick to parts of the car that could reasonably contain the suspected item. For example, if the police have probable cause to believe that a vehicle contains a corpse, then the police are not permitted to search a small compartment, such as the glove box, where a corpse could not possibly fit. Further, vehicle passengers' belongings are permitted to be searched under the automobile exception, too.

Plain View Exception

A police officer is permitted to seize evidence of a crime or contraband if the items are in "plain view," even if the officer has no probable cause to search the car under the automobile exception. An example of the plain view exception occurs if during a routine traffic stop, a police officer spies a bag of drugs on the front passenger seat. The entire vehicle can then be searched by the officer without the requirement of a warrant because the drugs were in plain view on the front passenger seat.

Search Incident to Arrest

If a police officer arrests a defendant based on a finding of probable cause, that officer can then search any area within the defendant's "wingspan." The wingspan includes those areas within the normal and usual reach of the arms and hands of a defendant. The wingspan of a defendant in a vehicle also includes passenger compartments such as the glove box. Significantly, the vehicle's trunk is not considered to be within the wingspan territory.