Getting pulled over by police or other law enforcement officers is stressful enough, especially if it ends in an arrest for something like drug possession. However, one of the often overlooked aspects of a traffic stop that culminates in an arrest is what happens to your car after you are taken away in the police cruiser. If there is no one available to pick up your car quickly, the unfortunate fact is that police will tow it and impound your car. Not only will this rack up impound fees, but it will also allow police to inventory your car, which involves a thorough search that often reveals more evidence of a crime. As a result, a traffic stop and arrest for a minor crime can quickly turn into serious criminal charges.
Police Inventories Can Be Done Without a Warrant
Generally speaking, police need a warrant to conduct a search for evidence of a crime. However, there are numerous exceptions to this requirement. Among the host of other exceptions is the one that lets police inventory the vehicles that they impound during the course of a criminal investigation.
Why Police are Allowed to Search an Impounded Car
Searching a car that they already have might seem like a strange and invasive thing for police to be able to do. However, courts have decided that allowing police to take a detailed inventory of the contents of your car protects you from police losing things, and protects the police from being accused of stealing your belongings. The reality, however, is that it gives police an excuse to take a long look through everything in your car, so they can put together evidence of a crime that they can charge you for.
Limitations to a Police Inventory Search
There are, however, limitations to what the police can do when they inventory your car. Police officers are not allowed to make up their own rules for the search on the spot. Instead, they have to abide by the police department’s standard inventory procedure. Unfortunately, this is more of a theoretical limitation than a practical one: Knowing that their inventory policies can be a limitation on their officers, police departments have adopted policies that let their officers search anywhere they want to.
A more important limitation to a police inventory search, though, is the fact that your vehicle must have been legally seized in order for it to be lawfully searched in an inventory. This prevents police from arresting you for no reason other than to inventory your vehicle and look for evidence of a crime. If it gets proven that this was the case, then whatever evidence they might have found, no matter how serious it was, it will be excluded from court.
The Federal Criminal Law Center
The Fourth Amendment protects your rights from police interference. Unfortunately, it often takes a skilled criminal defense attorney to vindicate those rights. If you have been charged with a federal crime, contact the Federal Criminal Law Center to start planning your defense.