If you have been injured in a car accident, you have enough to worry about, including tending to your injuries, repairing or replacing your damaged vehicle, and dealing with insurance companies.
If another person caused the accident, you could be considering filing a personal injury lawsuit. However, one possible issue you might not consider is whether the police will search your car.
Whether the police have the right to search your vehicle following an accident has been addressed by many courts, including the United States Supreme Court.
As with many legal questions, the answer is “it depends.” The circumstances surrounding your accident usually dictate if law enforcement has the right to search your car.
At Rice, Murtha & Psoras, our experienced Baltimore attorneys fight for our client’s rights – whether it is representing them in a personal injury lawsuit or protecting their civil rights. Our lawyers and staff have the knowledge and resources to handle complicated cases and issues. To discuss your case, call our law offices at (410) 694-7291.
When Do the Police Have the Right to Search Your Vehicle
Outside of certain circumstances, the police do not have the right to search your personal vehicle following an accident. Nonetheless, there are situations where a search could be appropriate or warranted.
Your Constitutional Protections
The Fourth Amendment protects Americans from unreasonable searches and seizures. While this might appear straightforward, it has been defined, refined, limited, and expanded over the years through a series of court decisions.
In many situations, the police are not permitted to search your vehicle without a warrant – including following an accident. However, there are exceptions and circumstances when a warrantless search is permitted and considered legal.
One way a police officer is allowed to search a vehicle is if they have probable cause. Probable cause means that the officer has a reasonable belief that a crime has been committed. In a car accident, various circumstances could amount to probable cause.
For example, if the arriving officer smells alcohol on the driver and sees broken pieces of a liquor bottle on the ground outside the car, it could be evidence that the accident victim was driving under the influence.
Incident to Arrest
A warrantless search could be conducted as an incident to arrest. Returning to the example above, once an officer formed the reasonable belief that the driver had broken the law by drinking and driving, they could be justified in conducting a thorough search of the car. This search could extend to the victim’s person. The purpose of the exception is to provide police with an opportunity to secure a suspected crime scene.
Plain View Doctrine
Police could conduct a warrantless search under the plain view doctrine. This legal concept is just what it sounds like – the police are entitled to seize items in plain sight without a warrant.
Returning to a slight variation on the facts presented above, imagine a police officer arrives at the scene and does not immediately smell alcohol or notice broken pieces of a bottle on the street outside the vehicle.
However, if the police notice what appears to be an open bottle of whisky lying on the vehicle’s back seat, they could be justified in searching the bottle to determine what it contained because it was in plain view.
It is possible to give consent to search your vehicle after an accident. Statements you give to the police or an insurance company could adversely impact your ability to pursue a personal injury claim.
Likewise, you could give the police consent to search your car following an accident. If you give your consent, a warrant is not necessary.
However, if you were severely injured or dazed, your consent might not have been voluntarily or knowingly given.
To combat improper consent, our Maryland personal injury attorneys could turn to medical documentation and witness testimony.
Can Impounded Cars Be Searched Without a Warrant?
There are many reasons why a car could be impounded. For example, the police could impound your car if you accumulate too many traffic violations or if your car was used in the commission of a crime.
Once a car has been impounded, the police are entitled to search the vehicle as part of their inventory search. The inventory search could be as comprehensive as the police deem necessary, including unlocking any locked compartments in your car or opening any boxes or packages found inside your car.
It is important to note that the police are not permitted to impound your car for the sole purpose of searching it. There must be a legitimate reason for your car to have been impounded.
If you were in an accident, your car could be impounded. If you were taken away from the scene of the crash in an ambulance and were unable to contact your insurance company or provide instructions regarding the disposal of your car, the police could have it impounded if it presented a danger to other motorists or impeded traffic and there is no available driver.
Once again, we will turn to the example of the potential drunk driver above. The police could impound and legally search the vehicle if the driver was rushed to the hospital and the car was unable to be moved to another safe location. Once the car is impounded, the police are permitted to conduct their inventory search.
Call Our Baltimore Attorneys if You Believe Your Car Was Unlawfully Searched
Accident victims have enough to worry about. Having their car illegally searched should not be one of their concerns. Our experienced Baltimore attorneys not only represent accident victims in personal injury claims, but we also protect our clients from unlawfully unlawful search and seizure. If your car was searched without a warrant following an accident, call our office at (410) 694-7291.