A car is your private property; you purchase it, you register the vehicle in your name. By all definitions, it’s yours. Cars are quite similar to homes in the regard that they are yours, and in some cases, a car can become your home as well. Motor homes and portable “tiny houses” recently exploded into popularity. So, if these pieces of property are yours entirely, why do police have the right to a vehicle search during DUI stop? Why do they search cars without receiving warrants? Simply put, our case law doesn’t treat cars in the same way as homes.
Why Can Police Conduct a Vehicle Search in a Stop?
If you are in your home, you qualify for the full protections of the 4th amendment. But what exactly does this mean? Well basically, you have the right to be secure in your home against any unlawful searches or seizures. The Supreme Court decided a series of cases where they made clear that the home is a sacred place. Unlike other public places, including cars, the home is a safe location where government cannot intrude. Cases like Kyllo v. United States discussed the “intimate” details of the home that the government shouldn’t be allowed to view.
Do these protections extend to your car?
These protections do NOT extend to your car. True, people may live in their cars, or at least spend a good amount of time there. Not to mention, they store personal property and hold private conversations. But, at the end of the day, you use your car in public spaces. Therefore, they can pose a threat to police and society. So, the ability to search immediately is sometimes a safety concern. Therefore, The Supreme Court refused to extend the same protections that you have in your home. A police officer does not have to obtain a warrant to search your car. A warrant-less vehicle search at a DUI stop can be legal, depending on the circumstances. Even if your car is a “motor home,” it does not have the same protections as a piece of real estate.
So, what should I take away from all of this?
It’s important that you understand the different laws that apply to different pieces of your property. Your home is a sacred space, even to the government. But your car is another story. So, it’s important that you free your car of anything incriminating. While the search must be lawful, it can stem from a number of circumstances— especially if anything is in plain view, and especially if you’re driving under the influence. So, drive safe, drive clean, and understand the law before taking chances.