The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects each of us – including teenagers – against warrantless searches and seizures by the police. The police are not allowed to search your person, your home, or your car without a warrant, unless the reason for the search falls under some very narrow justified exceptions. The same holds true if your teenager is driving your car. You can learn more about your child’s rights and car searches by the police here.
The Right to Privacy
Cars are part of our everyday life. They have transformed our ability to get around from place to place. Once they are licensed to drive, cars are a big part of every teenager’s life. For your teenager, driving provides freedom and adventure, the ability to meet up with friends, and a practical way to get around without being dependent upon parents or the school bus.
You have a right of privacy in your own car. When a teenager is driving your car with permission, they have a right of privacy. However, the right of privacy that a person has when in a car is more limited than the right of privacy in a home, apartment, or when it comes to property on a person. This is because of the fact that cars are mobile. Since cars can be moved from place to place, the law reasons that you have a lesser right to privacy when you are in your car. The same goes for your teenage driver.
In 1968, the United States Supreme Court decided the case of Terry v. Ohio. This case dealt with a police officer’s ability to stop and frisk someone that the officer reasonably believed was doing something illegal. The Supreme Court ruled that the police officer is allowed to stop someone and frisk them without a warrant if the officer had a reasonable suspicion that the person was doing something illegal. Later cases have ruled that a police officer can stop the driver of a car without a warrant if the police officer has a reasonable suspicion that the driver has done something illegal.
When Police Can Search the Car
The severity of the criminal act does not matter. As you know from your own driving experience, a police officer can pull you over for a non-criminal motor vehicle infraction. You might be pulled over for something like speeding, having a broken headlight on your car, using a cell phone, or not wearing a seatbelt. The police officer doesn’t need to suspect your teen has been involved in a serious crime to stop their car.
Once the police officer has stopped your teenager, the situation can grow more serious if the police officer reasonably believes that something more than a traffic offense is taking place. In these situations, the police can search your son or daughter’s person, and search their car without first getting a warrant.
There are two situations where the police can conduct a warrantless search of your teenage driver’s person:
- The police officer can order the driver (and any passengers) to exit the car and submit to a warrantless pat-down search. This can happen if the officer has a reasonable suspicion that the driver might have a weapon on them.
- If your teenager is arrested, the police have the right to conduct a warrantless search of your teen related to their arrest. This can happen so that the police officer can find any weapons they might be carrying. In both instances, the searches are justified for officer safety.
Besides searching the driver (or any passenger) without a warrant, the police officer can also make a warrantless search of your teen’s car under certain circumstances:
- If the driver is arrested, the police can search the car related to the arrest.
- If the officer has probable cause to believe the car has drugs, the police can search the car.
- The police can search a car if the driver agrees to the search.
- If the car is being impounded by the police, the police can search the car and inventory the contents.
Searches might also occur if the police officer has a reasonable belief that anyone inside the car has a weapon. In this case, the police can conduct a limited protective search of the car’s passenger compartment area to find any weapons. In this situation, searching under the front seat is allowed, but the police could not search in the trunk.
In addition, anything that is displayed out in the open in “plain view” is considered fair game. For example, if the police pulled your teenager over, and they saw a marijuana joint on the dashboard, this would be considered in plain view and is not a “search” of the car under our law.
When they decide car search cases, Judges have given police officers wide discretion as to whether their beliefs are reasonable under the law.