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The relationship between the people and the ones policing them has been tense from the beginning of time. This is the way of the world. Of course, this relationship can vary depending on certain people and certain places during certain times. However, in the U.S., the past few years have been particularly tense between the police and the ones they police. The best way to keep this relationship peaceful and productive is for both parties to know and stick to the law. If you drive, you should know what to do if the police pull you over. With that in mind, let’s discuss whether or not the police are allowed to search your car. 

Can the police search your car without a warrant? 

Because the United States is made up of states, the law is a bit wiggly in some cases. As far as the police and their power is concerned, this can be confusing and sometimes harmful. 

According to Flex Your Rights (Flex) – a 501(c)(3) educational nonprofit launched in 2002 – in general, the police need an active search warrant signed by a judge in order to search most places like a home, office, etc. However, your car doesn’t fall under the same rules

The nonprofit site states that if a police officer has “probable cause,” meaning that “the police must have some facts or evidence to believe you’re involved in criminal activity,” then they can legally search your vehicle without a search warrant. However, this doesn’t mean the officer can search your car based on a hunch. There must be observable evidence or behavior to lead that officer to believe you were or will engage in criminal activity. Examples of probable cause include seeing or smelling contraband or admitting to a specific crime. 

What happens if a cop illegally searches your vehicle? 

Police in the middle of traffic stop.
Highway Patrol officers pulling over a car | J. Conrad Williams, Jr./Newsday RM via Getty Images

A recent story out of New Jersey is bringing this conversation to light. Every so often, we get a nice reminder that the relationship between the police and the people is fragile and should be treated with care. 

According to CarScoops, the New Jersey Supreme Court has put New Jersey’s protection of motorists’ privacy policy to the test. The New Jersey Monitor reports that Justice Douglas Fasciale cited the state’s constitution, providing more protections against unreasonable searches and seizures of property than the federal constitution’s Fourth Amendment. 

A suspect who local police had surveilled in 2021 had his car searched after reports of drug activity had come from his apartment. The police followed the suspect and pulled over his 2017 GMC Terrain. After finding no drugs on his person, the police then wanted to search his SUV, to which he refused. The police called in the drug dogs and searched the car anyways. Though the police had reasonable evidence to obtain a legal warrant, their failure to do so made the search problematic. 

“The fact that the canine sniff is what culminated in probable cause does not eviscerate the steps that led to the sniff,” wrote Justice Fasciale. “The sniff did not exist in a vacuum but rather served to confirm and provide evidentiary support for the investigators’ suspicions. The canine sniff was just another step in a multi-step effort to gain access to the vehicle to search for the suspected drugs.” 

Although this was a well-executed search, the fact that they skipped the necessary process was a problem. The judge wrote, “investigative stop was deliberate, orchestrated, and wholly connected with the reason for the subsequent seizure of the evidence […] A warrant was required before searching the GMC.” 

Is illegally acquired evidence useful in court? 

The long and the short of it is the material evidence the police got from the suspect’s car (drugs, weapons, and ammunition is all inadmissible.