When can North Carolina Police Lawfully Search Your Vehicle?

Charlotte DWI Lawyer Brad Smith answers the question: “Can the police search my car without a warrant?”


Even if you did not commit a crime, talking to police officers during a traffic stop can be a stressful experience. When police suspect that you have committed a crime, they may want to search your vehicle. However, unless your circumstances meets the criteria that allow police to do a warrantless search, law enforcement officers need your permission to search your vehicle.

Related: What are your rights during a traffic stop in North Carolina?


canine-search-police-search-Charlotte-Monroe-Lake-Norman-Criminal-Defense-Lawyer-200x300Can You Refuse a Vehicle Search in North Carolina?

There is no federal law or state law in North Carolina that requires you to permit police to search your vehicle during a traffic stop. Also, the fact that you refused a police search cannot be grounds for your arrest.

As in many other states, North Carolina law requires police officers to have probable cause in order to conduct a lawful vehicle search. Thus, if a law enforcement officer has reasonable suspicion that you were involved in criminal activity, they may have probable cause to search your vehicle.

For instance, police officers may have probable cause to search your vehicle if they see a weapon or illegal drugs, or they smell the odor of marijuana or alcohol from inside the vehicle. If the police officer did not have probable cause to search your vehicle, anything discovered by the officer in the course of the vehicle search would not be admissible evidence in court.

Related: Can police take your weapon during a traffic stop?


When can Police Officers Carry Out Warrantless Vehicle Searches?

Under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, people are protected from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Any evidence obtained by police officers during unlawful vehicle searches will be suppressed and deemed inadmissible by a court.

However, under specific circumstances, police officers can conduct a vehicle search without a lawfully executed warrant. A warrantless vehicle search does not violate the driver’s Fourth Amendment rights when the search is reasonable under the following circumstances:

  • You consent to a police search;
  • The police officer has probable cause to believe that you committed a crime or your vehicle was involved in criminal activity;
  • The police officer has a reasonable belief that the vehicle search is necessary to protect themselves (e.g., to discover a hidden weapon); and
  • The vehicle search is related to your arrest (e.g., the officer is trying to find illegal drugs inside the vehicle).

Law enforcement officers are allowed to search your vehicle without a warrant in any of the above-mentioned situations. If police officers searched your vehicle without a warrant and the search was not reasonable, speak with a skilled criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

Keep in mind that police officers cannot stop vehicles if they do not have a reasonable suspicion that the driver violated a law or was involved in criminal activity. Also, just because police officers have probable cause to search a vehicle does not necessarily authorize them to search the occupants of the vehicle. The search of a person is usually only justified if there are any incriminating facts.

Talk to our criminal defense attorneys at Arnold & Smith, PLLC, to discuss your particular situation and determine whether police had probable cause to search your vehicle. Contact Arnold & Smith, PLLC to consult with one of our knowledgeable criminal defense attorneys, who will review your particular situation and determine what your options are. Call our lawyers at Arnold & Smith, PLLC, at (704) 370-2828 to evaluate your options or fill out our contact form. Now taking cases throughout North Carolina with offices in Uptown Charlotte, Mooresville and Monroe.







The criminal defense attorneys at Arnold & Smith, PLLC make it their mission to zealously defend their clients on a wide range of criminal matters at both the state and federal levels. These matters may include any charge from traffic offenses; DWI/DUI; drug charges (from simple possession to possession with intent to distribute and trafficking); gun permit denials; weapons offenses; and property crimes (larceny, breaking and entering, robbery, fraud, embezzlement, white collar offenses); to sexually related offenses (indecent exposure; sexual assault, crimes against nature, removal from sex offender registry); and violent crimes (domestic violence; assault; manslaughter; homicide, murder). Other legal issues that Arnold & Smith, PLLC criminal clients may be facing include restraining orders, restraining order and probation violations, expungements; appeals; and immigration issues related to criminal charges. Our criminal defense attorneys are passionate about ensuring that individuals empower themselves by being informed about their constitutional rights, and stand at the ready to fight in the defense of those facing criminal charges.






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