Can police search locked boxes in a vehicle without a warrant?

On Behalf of | Jul 1, 2024 | Criminal Defense |

Police officers who pull someone over are often eager to look for evidence of a crime. They may want to search the vehicle. Sometimes, however, their eagerness leads to a violation of someone’s rights.

Pennsylvania actually has relatively strong protections for those interacting with the police. The Fourth Amendment to the federal Constitution protects people from unreasonable searches and property seizures. The Pennsylvania courts have interpreted and expanded on that basic right in a number of important court cases.

Precedents established by the courts in Pennsylvania restrict when and how police officers search vehicles. If police officers force their way into a locked box inside a vehicle, that could be a violation of someone’s rights.

When can police search locked boxes?

Police officers can search a vehicle and its contents in a handful of scenarios. The driver might give them permission to conduct a search. They may be able to search the vehicle if they have probable cause. Something an officer smells, hears or sees could give them justification to search a vehicle.

Other times, the officer needs a warrant. If the state impounds the vehicle because they arrest the driver, it is standard practice to search the vehicle. Doing so is not a criminal search but rather an inventory search to prevent risk to others and loss of property for the vehicle owner. An inventory search allows for a cursory examination of the vehicle and its contents.

However, an inventory search does not provide officers with an excuse to open a locked container inside the vehicle. To search a locked container within the vehicle, officers either need a warrant or proof of exigent circumstances. The belief that there could be an incendiary device in the container is one of the rare circumstances that might justify searching a locked container without a warrant.

Why search rules are important

Many criminal defense strategies focus on technicalities of the law. If police officers violate either the law or the rights of a defendant, that can affect what evidence the state can present. A defense attorney can potentially exclude or suppress evidence obtained through an illegal search. Particularly in cases where officers were simply on a hunt for drugs, going through a locked container within a vehicle might lead to unusable evidence.

Learning more about the rules for criminal investigations may benefit anyone accused of breaking the law. Those who understand their rights may recognize when police officers violate them.

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