Not a week goes by that our office doesn’t have someone call in about a search and seizure dealing with a vehicle. On a fairly regular basis, someone quotes the Jay-Z song 99 Problems, saying that obviously a police officer would need consent or a warrant, so how could they have searched the car with neither? The short answer is: The police do not need a warrant to search your car or truck, even if the glove compartment or trunk is locked.
The Supreme Court has ruled on this issue and has declared that it is reasonable under the 4th Amendment for police to search a car, the trunk, glove compartment, any bags or containers you may have in the car, when they have probable cause to do so. The real issue an attorney will look into is whether or not the police had probable cause to search your vehicle.
In most situations a police officer will ask you if they can search your vehicle, and it is your legal right to say, and if there is anything in your car that should not be, you should, say no, I do not give consent. This does not mean that a police officer cannot search your vehicle however. If an officer really wants to search your vehicle, it is likely that they will, however if they do not have probable cause to do so, this can become a suppression issue and can lead to charges being dropped or dismissed.
What are some examples of probable cause for a police officer to search your vehicle?
Contraband in plain sight, for example drugs, drug paraphernalia, weapons.
The smell of marijuana smoke, in combination with signs of intoxication.
Conflicting statements made by the occupants of the vehicle leads an officer to conclude there is reason to search the vehicle.
Probable cause, at its heart, is not necessarily cut and dried; it is based on all of the circumstances surrounding the event. Because there is no set list of what constitutes probable cause, it is advisable to talk with an attorney to determine if you have a suppression issue. A successful suppression hearing can result in key pieces of evidence being inadmissible as evidence, a reduction or dismissal of charges, and even the possibility of a civil suit.