Sunday, April 14, 2024

Warrantless Searches of Motor Vehicle Occupants

Warrantless Searches of Motor Vehicle Occupants

In the ordinary case, a search of private property must be both reasonable and conducted pursuant to a properly issued search warrant. However, law enforcement officers are empowered to search an automobile without a warrant, so long as it can be demonstrated that exigent circumstances rendered the obtaining of a warrant an impossible or impractical alternative and that probable cause existed for the search. The doctrine was initially premised on the notion that there was a constitutional difference between houses and cars, which are inherently mobile. However, mobility is no longer the prime justification for the automobile exception; rather, it is the diminished expectation of privacy which surrounds the automobile.

Although an automobile passenger possesses a reduced expectation of privacy, the passenger does not lose his privacy interest just because he happens to be in the vehicle. Courts utilize a totality of the circumstances principle to determine if a passenger should be frisked and his belonging searched. In determining whether a passenger will be subjected to a frisk, companionship to a driver suspected of criminal activity is only one factor necessary to make the determination. The circumstances must also suggest that the passenger is armed and dangerous and poses a danger to the officer. Notwithstanding the justifications necessary for a frisk, if an officer has probable cause to stop the driver of the vehicle, the officer may, as a practical matter, order the passenger out of the vehicle for the duration of the stop.

Similarly, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that before a passenger in the vehicle can be arrested, there must be “probable cause” based upon the “totality of the circumstances” that the passenger was engaged in a common criminal enterprise with the arrested driver.

With respect to searches, when a police officer makes a lawful custodial arrest of the occupant of an automobile, the officer may, as a contemporaneous incident of that arrest, search the automobile’s passenger compartment, even though the occupants have exited the automobile, and the vehicle has been secured. While the search of a vehicle does not automatically extend to an item that is clearly associated with the nonarrested passenger, courts have allowed police, on the basis of the automobile exception, to search a passenger’s personal belongings inside an automobile that the police had probable cause to believe contained contraband or dangerous weapons.

In view of the unique treatment of an automobiles under the Fourth Amendment, passengers in an automobile lack standing to challenge the constitutionality of automobile searches and seizures.


Copyright 2012 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.

State Certified Specialists
Robert Beles - State Certified Criminal Law Specialist
Anne Beles - State Certified Criminal Law Specialist
Paul McCarthy - State Certified Appellate Law Specialist
Emilio Parker - State Certified Immigration Law Specialist
California Board of Legal Specialization

    Free Consultation - Online Form

    All fields marked with * are required.

    Se Habla Español

    Contact us for a free consultation: (510) 836‑0100
    Let our experience work for you. We can help!

    Very Pleased with Robert’s Services

    "Robert Beles and his team are straightening out my matters that the San Francisco public defender left in shambles. I had to be patient and wait for court dates and for judges to rule in my favor. Thanks to Robert and his team my future looks much better and my record is clean."


    Beles Law Office Can Handle Anything in the Criminal Law World

    "Robert has been practicing many many years and can handle anything. My experience with them has been great."

    Mike M.

    Super Lawyers California State Bar Preeminent Lawyers California Board of Legal Specialization National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
    California Attorneys for Criminal Justice Avvo Rating 10.0 - Robert J. Beles AILA Best of Oakland Winner
    Office Locations

    Oakland Office
    The Ordway Building
    1 Kaiser Plaza - Suite 2300
    Oakland, CA 94612
    Phone: (510) 836-0100
    Fax: 510-832-3690

    Hayward Office
    22320 Foothill Blvd.
    Hayward, CA 94541
    Phone: (510) 836-0100

    Fremont Office
    39560 Stevenson Place - St 217
    Fremont, CA 94536
    Phone: (510) 745-7755

    Pleasanton Office
    4900 Hopyard Rd. - Suite 100
    Pleasanton, CA 94588
    Phone: (925) 460-5400

    Walnut Creek Office
    2121 N. California Blvd
    Walnut Creek, CA 94507
    Phone: (925) 460-5400

    San Jose
    2880 Zanker Road, Suite 203
    San Jose, CA 95134
    Phone: (510) 836-0100

    Contact Us Office Directions

    Credit Cards and Payment Plans Accepted
    Translate »