Car impounded can police search it?

Recently on our legal forum a user asked, “I live in California. I was arrested last night for driving with a suspended license. I was alone at the time of my arrest. After the arrest they towed my car and searched it. They found an ounce of marijuana that was on in the floor on the passenger side. I am wondering if they had the legal right to impound my car and search it after my arrest?”

California laws and impoundment of a car

Under California Vehicle Code §14602.6, if you have been legally arrested and there is no one else present to drive your car, the police are legally allowed to tow the car and impound it for up to thirty days. So given the information you presented, it sounds like the police had the legal right to tow your car after your legal California arrest.

When can the police legally search your car?

Now, the Fourth Amendment protects drivers from unlawful searches and seizures, but this does not mean that police officers never have the right to search your car. In fact, there are many instances in which California officers may have the right to conduct a search including the following:

  • You have given your consent for them to search your car when asked.
  • The police have probable cause to believe that there is evidence of a crime within the car.
  • The police are temporarily detaining an occupant of the car and believe that the individual may have access to a weapon stored in the car.
  • The police are arresting an occupant and the arrestee is within reach of the interior of the car or the car contains evidence to support the arrest.
  • You have been arrested, the car is being lawfully impounded, and the police are conducting an inventory search of the car.

Why are the police allowed to conduct an inventory search?

The last reason listed – an inventory search- was the reason the police had the legal right to search your car even if they did not have a valid search warrant. The inventory search was presumably done to document any items of worth found in the car and to protect you against theft.

Although the scope of the inventory search may vary by jurisdiction, most state laws allow for a search of anything in plain view. Because the drugs were found in plain view, it may be hard to argue that the police’s search was beyond the scope of a traditional inventory search.

If the police do decide to charge you with possession, however, you should discuss your case with a criminal defense lawyer. There are certain reasons evidence found within an impounded car cannot be admissible in court.

For example, you may be able to prove the car was not legally impounded, someone else should have been given the right to take the car home, the scope of the search was excessive given your state’s laws, or the police acted with the sole intent to impound the car to simply allow for a warrantless search.

Bottom Line:

Criminal laws vary by state and by jurisdiction. Understanding the laws of your state and the rights you have at the time of an arrest are important. If you are not sure of your rights after a criminal arrest, however, you can always contact a criminal lawyer and find out if your rights have been violated.


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