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Training Bulletin

Index Number
Alpha Index
Date of Issue/Revision

I O.1
Vehicle Searches
25 Sep 98

Consent Search
Officers conduct a consent search of a vehicle when they are given permission to do so by the
vehicle's owner.
If someone other than the owner of the vehicle consents to the search, it must be reasonable for
officers to believe the person had the authority to give consent.
In conducting a consent search, officers may search any place or thing which officers reasonably
believed the consenting person authorized. If the consenting person was told the type of evidence
officers were seeking, the search must be limited to places and things in which such evidence
may reasonably be found.
Inventory Search
When a vehicle is towed, officers may, under certain circumstances, conduct a vehicle inventory
search of the car and its contents in order to secure any valuable property located within the
vehicle and to guard against false claims that property in the vehicle was lost, stolen, or
A vehicle inventory search typically occurs after a driver has been cited or arrested or when a
vehicle has been in a traffic accident or is a hazard.
Officers may conduct an inventory search when all of the following conditions are met:

It is reasonable to tow the car

It is reasonable to tow a car when the situation fulfills criteria specified in the California Vehicle
Code and I or when removal of the vehicle is reasonably necessary to protect the car or its

The decision to tow is made in good faith

Officers cannot tow a car solely for the purpose of conducting an inventory search. As a practical
matter, "good faith" is usually found if the decision to tow is based on Department regulations or
standard procedure which requires or permits such action.

The decision to conduct an inventory search is made in good faith

Good faith can be established by showing the decision to conduct the search is based on
Department regulations or established routine that requires or permits such action for the purpose
of protecting the vehicle and its contents.
An inventory search must be limited to those areas in which valuable or dangerous items are
commonly found, such as in consoles, the glove box, or the trunk or under the seats. Officers
would not ordinarily be permitted to remove door panels or carpets during an inventory search
because personal property and dangerous items are usually not kept in such places.
All containers including closed containers found in an impounded vehicle shall be inventoried as
necessary to determine their contents. However, if a container reasonably announces its contents,
officers may use their discretion in deciding whether or not to open it in order to confirm their
If an occupant of a vehicle to be towed requests possession of an object in the vehicle, officers
may use their discretion in deciding whether or not to return the property.
If an officer decides to return the property, the officer may inspect the object to determine its
ownership before returning it. The inspection of the object must be reasonable. If the object is a
closed container whose owner is clearly identified by a mailing label, for example, a further
inspection may be unreasonable. If other factors, however, indicate the container contains
weapons or contraband, a further search based on probable cause may be justified.
Protective Search
A protective search is a limited search for weapons officers may conduct when they lawfully
detain the driver or passenger in a vehicle and reasonably believe the vehicle contains a
dangerous weapon.
In most cases, protective searches are conducted after officers observe a weapon in the passenger
In People v. Lafitte, for example, officers stopped Lafitte for driving with a broken headlight.
While one of the officers talked to Lafitte, the other officer shined a flashlight inside the car and
spotted a knife on the glove box door. The officers seized the knife and conducted a protective
search of the car for other weapons. During the search, the officers found a handgun.
Although the knife was described as a legal knife and although Lafitte was cooperative
throughout the detention, the court ruled the search was necessary to protect the officers. Said the
court, The discovery of the weapon is the crucial fact which provides a reasonable basis for the
officers' suspicion.
A protective search must be limited to the passenger compartment and any containers in the
passenger compartment which are large enough to hold a weapon. If a weapon is found, officers

may seize it and search for more weapons. While conducting a protective search, officers may
also seize any contraband or other evidence in plain view.
Instrumentality Search
If there is probable cause to believe that a car is an instrument of a crime, officers may impound
the car without a warrant and conduct scientific testing on the exterior and interior of the car and
its contents.
While lawfully inside the car, officers may seize any property in plain view if there is probable
cause to believe the property is evidence of a crime.
As a general rule, a car will be deemed an instrument of a crime if it meets either of the
following conditions:

A crime was committed inside the car

The car was the means by which a crime was committed

For example, officers may impound a car without a warrant and conduct scientific testing on the
exterior and interior of the car and its contents if a murder has been committed inside the car, the
car was used to transport a kidnap victim, a person was raped in the car, the car was used in a hit
and run, and I or the car ran over a murder victim or pushed a murder victim over an
On the other hand, an instrumentality search is not justified merely because a vehicle is used in
the commission of a crime. A getaway car, for example, could not be subject to an
instrumentality search although circumstances might justify a probable cause search, a search
incident to arrest, or an inventory search.
Probable Cause Search
A warrantless search of a vehicleincluding vans and motorhomesis permitted if there is
probable cause to believe the vehicle contains contraband or other evidence of a crime.
Probable cause exists if officers are aware of facts establishing a fair probability that evidence
of a crime is located in the vehicle.
In the words of the California Supreme Court, Police officers who lawfully stop a vehicle,
having probable cause to believe that contraband is located or concealed somewhere therein, may
conduct a warrantless search of the vehicle that is as thorough that which a magistrate could
authorize by warrant.
Different from a search incident to arrest (see page 7), probable cause searches need not be
contemporaneous with the seizure of the car or the arrest of an occupant. Officers may conduct a

probable cause search, for example, after a car has been impounded or after a suspect has been
taken to jail.
In determining whether probable cause exists, a court will consider the totality of circumstances
and evaluate the circumstances by applying common sense and not hyper-technical analysis. A
court may also take into consideration an officer's opinion, based on the officer's training and
experience, that certain evidence would be found in the vehicle.
For example, the courts have agreed officers have probable cause to search a vehicle under the
following circumstances:
Occupant Arrested. Fruits and Instruments of the Crime
If there is probable cause to believe an occupant recently committed a crime in which property
was stolen or a weapon or other instrument was used, probable cause exists to search the car for
the stolen property and the weapons or instruments.
Similarly, if there is probable cause to arrest an occupant for being tinder the influence of drugs,
probable cause usually exists to search the car for drugs.
Contraband: If There's Some, There May Be More
When officers see an illegal weapon, drugs or other contraband inside a car, they may, of course,
immediately seize the evidence. They may also search the car, including the trunk, for additional
weapons or contraband.
In the words of the California Supreme Court, "The observation from outside the vehicle of
contraband in plain view inside the vehicle may furnish probable cause to believe that additional
contraband is secreted therein and to justify a search therefor."
For example, the courts have found probable cause to search for more contraband when officers
observed the following items inside a vehicle:
Concealed Handgun

"Where one of a trio of persons is in possession of a weapon in a

vehicle, ordinary caution would lead to the strong suspicion that
other weapons are present."

Loaded Shotgun

"Once [the deputy] opened the rear door and found the loaded
shotgun, probable cause to search the rest of the van was

Two Pieces of
Rock Cocaine

"Once the officer discovered rock cocaine in the passenger

compartment, he had probable cause to believe illegal drugs
would be found in the trunk of the car."

Marijuana Seeds

The observation of even an unusable quantity of marijuana has

been deemed sufficient to justify the search of a vehicle for
additional contraband.

Partially Smoked
Marijuana Cigarette

Courts have agreed that it is reasonable to suspect that a

person smoking one marijuana cigarette may well want another
and will carry sufficient marijuana to satisfy his appetite.

Odor of Marijuana

"The odor of marijuana in a vehicle is sufficient to give probable

cause to search the vehicle for contraband."

Open Beer Can

"When [the officer] saw the beer can through the car window,
that observation constituted probable cause for his further
examination of the vehicle to ascertain whether other open cans
were in the car."

Illegal Drug Container Probable cause to believe that additional drugs are inside a
vehicle may be based on an officer's observation of a container
which the officer recognizes, based on training and experience,
as a type of container commonly used to package illegal drugs,
such as heroin-filled balloons or bindles.
Information from Informant
Probable cause to search a vehicle may be based on information from a reliable informant who
reported that contraband or other evidence is presently located in the vehicle.
Narcotics-Dog Alert
An alert by a drugdetecting dog may establish probable cause to search a vehicle for illegal
Search for Registration and Identification
In most cases, officers have probable cause to believe that a car contains documents establishing
the identity of the driver and the registered owner. Consequently, a warrantless search for such
documents is permitted when officers have a legal right to inspect such documents but are unable
to obtain them voluntarily.
California Vehicle Code sections 4462(a) and 12951(b) provide the authority to demand the
These code sections typically come into play in the following situations:

Driver Refuses to Furnish

Officers who have lawfully stopped a vehicle have a legal right to inspect the driver's drivers
license and the vehicle registration. If the driver fails to provide these documents, officers may
search for them without a warrant. Such a search must be limited to places where such
documents are commonly found, such as in the glove box and over the visor.
Driver Flees
When a detained driver runs off, officers may search the car for documents and other evidence
that would help in identifying and apprehending the driver.
Furtive Gestures by Occupant as Probable Cause
Although a furtive gesture by an occupant of a car may indicate an attempt to hide or grab a
weapon or contraband, the California Supreme Court has ruled that a furtive gesture will not, in
and of itself, constitute probable cause to search.
The court's reasoning is that gestures that might appear "furtive," can be quite innocent. The
driver, for example, may be reaching for his registration, turning off the radio, putting out a
cigarette, unbuckling a seat belt, etc.
Although a furtive gesture, in and of itself, may not provide probable cause to search, it is a
highly relevant circumstance in determining whether there are grounds to conduct a pat search.
Allowed Scope of Probable Cause Search
If there is probable cause to believe that contraband or other evidence of a crime is located in a
car, officers may search all areas and containers in which the evidence may be located. In the
words of the Supreme Court, "If probable cause justifies the search of a lawfully stopped vehicle,
it justifies the search of every part of the vehicle and its contents that may conceal the object of
the search."
For example, when there is probable cause to believe illegal drugs are in the car, the courts have
permitted a search of the glove compartment, a canvas bag on the front seat, a handbag, the
trunk, a paper bag in the trunk, and a zippered pouch in the trunk.
Officers may not, however, search places and containers in which such evidence cannot be
concealed. As the California Supreme Court observed, "Probable cause to search for a stolen
television set would not justify a search of the glove compartment."
If there is probable cause to believe that evidence will be found only in a certain area or
container, officers may search that area and open that container, but they may not search
elsewhere in the car.

Search Incident to Arrest

The most common type of vehicle search is the search incident to arrest.
The purpose of a search incident to arrest is to locate and secure any weapons that might be used
against officers and to prevent the arrestee or others from concealing or destroying evidence.
Conducting a search incident to arrest, officers may search the entire passenger compartment,
including the glove box and consoles. They may search all containers located in the passenger
compartment such as luggage, boxes, bags, and clothing. Such containers may be searched even
if they belong to someone other than the arrestee and even if the container is too small to hold a
weapon or evidence of a crime.
Different from a probable cause search, when conducting a search incident to arrest, officers may
not search the vehicle's trunk.
The search of a vehicle incident to arrest is permitted when all of the following conditions are

An occupant of the car has been lawfully arrested, or probable cause to arrest exists.
A person will be deemed an occupant of the car if officers observed the person inside the
car at the time the car was stopped or, in the ease of a parked car, when officers approached
the vehicle.
An arrestee who is contacted outside a vehicle will be deemed an occupant if officers reasonably believe the arrestee was an occupant of the vehicle shortly before the arrest, and there is
a close association between the car and the arrestee at the moment of the arrest.
For example, an officer saw two men drinking beer in a public park in violation of a city
ordinance. The men were standing at the rear of a car, and the officer saw one of the men
discard a beer can through the car's open window. When the officer learned that one of the
men was wanted for outstanding traffic warrants and that he was also the owner of the car,
the officer arrested him, searched the car incident to arrest, and discovered cocaine.
The court upheld the search, ruling that the defendant was an occupant of the car because he
was a recent occupant of the vehicle and closely connected to it at the time of arrest."
As long as probable cause to arrest exists, it is immaterial whether the search precedes or follows the arrest.

The arrest is custodial.

An arrest is deemed custodial is the arrestee will be transported to a police station, jail, or
detox facility.

The arrest of a juvenile is deemed custodial if the juvenile is transported home.

The search is contemporaneous with the arrest.

The search must be conducted in a reasonable amount of time and at the site of the arrest
while the arrestee is at the scene.
For example, officers arrested a suspect, handcuffed him, and placed him in the back of a
patrol car. Even though the suspect was still at the scene, the search of his car was not
justified as incident to arrest because the officers unnecessarily delayed the search, waiting
thirty to forty-five minutes to conduct it. The court viewed this delay as unreasonable.
A search is not contemporaneous with arrest if it occurs after the car is towed or after the
arrestee is transported to a police station.
A search which is not contemporaneous with an arrest may, nevertheless, be upheld if the
officers were diligent in their investigation and/or there was good reason for delaying the
search or for conducting it when the arrestee was not present. In all instances, the search must
occur as soon as it is practical to do so.
Searches have been upheld, for example, when the driver, who ran from officers after the car
was stopped, was captured some distance away; when the arresting officers were dispatched
to an injury accident, and when the arrestee's car had to be immediately towed from the scene
because it had crashed into another car and was blocking traffic.