Are Police Allowed to Search My Car in Phoenix, AZ Without a Warrant?

by Aaron Black • February 20, 2020
Pulled over by PoliceOur nation’s founders put an end to the English King’s representatives searching property whenever they wanted. Today the U.S. Constitution protects us against illegal searches and seizers of property under the Fourth Amendment.

But with the advent of the motor vehicle legislatures developed the “mobile conveyance exception.” This means that law enforcement in some situations doesn’t need the warrant to search your vehicle Phoenix, AZ.

That’s because a vehicle can leave a traffic stop and the court’s physical jurisdiction, making it difficult or impossible to obtain a search warrant, which can be done in a phone call to a judge at the traffic stop.

Without a search warrant, police must have “probable cause” or at least a “reasonable suspicion” to search your vehicle.

But, what do these terms mean?

What is Probable Cause?

Probable cause under the Fourth Amendment states that “no warrants shall issue but upon probable cause” but doesn’t define exactly what probable cause means. The U.S. Supreme Court has tried to clarify the meaning but the concept is imprecise and uses a flexible and practical standard. Generally, probable cause is defined as a reasonable person who believes that a crime is being committed or was committed or evidence of a crime is present in the vehicle.

What does Reasonable Suspicion mean?

Reasonable suspicion has a lower standard than probable cause. It’s a common-sense judgment based on the circumstances or facts of a situation so authorities can’t use a hunch or conjecture. Reasonable suspicion isn’t enough to permit a warrantless search of a car in Arizona but there is an exception. Reasonable suspicion can be used if the vehicle is on school property.

The Doctrine of “In Plain View”

This element of the law is relatively self-explanatory. In plain view means just that. For example, a half-smoked marijuana pre-roll is in the vehicle’s ashtray and is easily seen by an officer who is standing at the driver’s door. The officer just needs to look into the vehicle to see the illicit item. The officer is then allowed to seize the evidence, search the vehicle and make an arrest for possession without obtaining a warrant.

Recent Limits for Warrantless Vehicle Searches

While searches of homes require a warrant a case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in May 2018 determined that a vehicle parked on the private property of a residence can’t be legally searched without a warrant. The court ruled that the Fourth Amendment applies to a home’s yard or surrounding property, which the law terms “curtilage.”

Do I have to give Consent to a Vehicular Search?

At a traffic stop, an officer may ask the driver for permission to search the vehicle without getting a warrant. The driver is well within the law to refuse to comply under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution that protects people from incriminating themselves, known as “taking the Fifth.”

However, if the vehicle’s operator does consent to a search he or she can dictate how much of the vehicle can be searched. The driver may allow the passenger compartment to be searched but not the glove compartment, trunk, or engine bay. Should the limited search lead to probable cause a warrant can be obtained to search the entire vehicle and the driver is detained while the warrant is issued.

Impounded Vehicle Searches

Vehicles that are impounded have less protection. When a vehicle is impounded after a DUI arrest, for example, the police routinely make a list of the items left in the vehicle to ensure the property is returned to the owner. However, if criminal evidence found when making the list of property in the vehicle, it can be used by the prosecution without obtaining a warrant.

What should I do at a Traffic Stop?

When the police start asking questions at the traffic stop the best thing to do is to invoke the right to remain silent under the Fifth Amendment and ask for the right to have a criminal defense attorney present during questioning.

It’s the responsibility of the authorities to prove their case without assistance from the defendant. However, when declining to answer questions do so with politeness and show respect for the badge.

Building a Defense

The criminal defense attorney will scrutinize the police report for omissions, falsehoods, and procedural errors and interview the arresting officer to form a defense by suppressing the state’s evidence so it can’t be used. This requires the skill of an experienced criminal defense attorney.

Free Confidential, Legal Advice

If you or a loved one has a case involving a vehicle search don’t second guess your legal situation and seek legal advice.

The Law Office of Aaron Black offers free and confidential legal advice to assess the strength and weaknesses of the prosecution’s case.
I’ll hear your side of the event, explain the law involved, ask questions and answer your questions.

Contact Phoenix DUI and Criminal Defense Attorney, Aaron Black or call (480) 729-1683. I am available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I’ll respond promptly unless I’m in court.

I defend criminal cases in Arizona’s justice, municipal, county, state and federal courts.

About the Author

Aaron Black is the founder and sole attorney of the Law Office of Aaron Black. Located in Phoenix, Arizona, his DUI and criminal defense law firm provides legal services to people who have received felony or misdemeanor charges from the state.

Aaron has developed a strong interest in defending people who have been arrested and received criminal charges for driving under the influence. With his professionalism and knowledge of Arizona DUI and criminal law, he has acted as a check and balance on the police, prosecution and courts and has protected a great number of his clients from excessive and unfair sentencing.

Along with DUI defense, Aaron handles a range of other criminal matters, including aggravated assault, burglary, domestic violence, drug possession, drug trafficking, fraud defense, insurance fraud, sex crimes and white-collar crime.

After graduating college in 2003 from the University of Arizona, Aaron decided to pursue a law degree. He followed a family long tradition and went to the University of South Dakota School of Law where he pursued his goal of becoming a criminal defense lawyer.

After passing the Arizona and South Dakota bar exams, Aaron joined the Maricopa County Office of the Public Defender where he defended hundreds of people charged with serious criminal offenses. His work as a public defender helped him sharpen his litigation skills and gave him a unique insight into the Arizona criminal justice system.

Over the course of his 15-year legal career, Aaron has spent a considerable amount of time in both Arizona justice, municipal, state and federal courts. He has argued over 50 jury trials, tried over 100 bench trials and has become one of the highest-rated criminal and DUI defense attorneys in Phoenix and the surrounding areas. He has received a 10/10 rating from the legal directory Avvo because of his legal background and successful case record. Since 2014, he has received the Super Lawyer rating for his work as a Phoenix DUI and criminal defense attorney.

You can review Aaron’s Attorney Bio page for more information about his background, education and experience as a Phoenix DUI and criminal defense attorney.
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