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What is the "automobile exception" regarding police searches?

As a general rule, the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects individuals against unreasonable searches and seizures. One way to ensure that a search is reasonable is for police to obtain a search warrant before performing the search. Searches without a warrant run the risk of having any evidence collected during the search held to be inadmissible at trial, which is known as the "exclusionary rule" or the "fruit of the poisonous tree" doctrine.

But it is not always practical to obtain a search warrant in all circumstances, and courts have recognized this by creating some exceptions to the warrant requirement. One of the most significant of these exceptions is the "automobile exception" to the exclusionary rule.

In a series of cases that go back to the 1920s, the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed police to perform warrantless searches of cars based on the police operating under the probable cause requirement. Basically, the automobile exception works as follows:

  • Given the nature of an automobile in transit, sometimes an immediate intrusion is necessary if police officers having probable cause to believe that an illegal substance is inside are to secure it, in which circumstance a warrantless search of an automobile is not necessarily unreasonable.
  • Frequently warrantless searches of cars will involve police examining and even opening containers found inside. The scope of such a warrantless search is not defined by the nature of the container in which the contraband is concealed. Instead, it is defined by the object of the search and the places in which there is probable cause to believe that it may be found.
  • The scope of the warrantless search authorized by the automobile exception is no broader, and no narrower, than a judge could legitimately permit by a search warrant. So if probable cause justifies the search of a lawfully stopped vehicle, it justifies the search of every part of the vehicle and its contents that may conceal the object of the search.

This post is only an overview of the automobile exception to the exclusionary rule. If you have been charged with a drug crime based on the result of a vehicle search, your defense attorney can help you to better understand whether the search was reasonable and what defenses you may have.

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