Automobile Exception and Warrantless Searches on Private Property in Utah

Utah residents who have their vehicles searched by police should know their rights within the Fourth Amendment’s automobile exception and how to avoid warrantless searches on private property.

Fourth Amendment

Photo by: Drew Stephens

The Fourth Amendment states: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” While this amendment protects people by ensuring their private property is not searched without a warrant, there are some allowances for warrantless police searches that may arise. One such allowance is the known as the automobile exception.

Automobile exception

The automobile exception to the Fourth Amendment came about in 1925 during the 13 year alcohol prohibition when a bootlegger named George Carroll was under investigation for transporting and selling alcohol. Carroll had offered an undercover police officer alcohol, yet did not go through with the sale. Later Carroll was spotted driving down the highway and officers, who assuming Carroll was transporting alcohol, pulled him over and searched his vehicle where prohibited alcohol was located. Carroll tried to fight the charges, stating he had been illegally searched. The court noted that because officers had probable cause to search the vehicle and due to the fact that a motor vehicle could “. . . be quickly moved out of the locality or jurisdiction in which the arrant must be sought”, a warrant was not necessary. Other allowances were eventually added to the automobile exception allowing warrantless searches of vehicles that are in police custody as well as searches of vehicles that aren’t at risk of being removed from the location.

Vehicle searches at home

Photo by: Yngve Roennike

When a vehicle is being searched by law enforcement, Utah residents may wonder if their garage, a nearby yard, or any area of their property may also be at risk of being searched. Unless a warrant is issued specifying otherwise, the automobile exception does not allow law enforcement to search the area surrounding a vehicle if it is on private property. In fact, the automobile exception doesn’t even allow officers to enter onto a person’s property to do a vehicle search. In Collins V. Virginia (2018) Virginia resident Ryan Collins was suspected of being in possession of a stolen motorcycle after a picture of a motorcycle matching the description of the stolen one was seen on Collins’ Facebook page. Officers went to Collins’ home and observed something under a white tarp in the driveway. Without a warrant or Collins’ permission, officers entered onto Collins’ property and looked under the tarp. The stolen motorcycle was there, and Collins’ was arrested. After appealing his conviction, The Virginia Court of appeals stated that “the automobile exception does not permit the warrantless entry of a home or its curtilage in order to search a vehicle therein.”

Ways around a search warrant

Officers are not permitted to enter a home or its curtilage to search a vehicle or the surrounding area, but there is nothing stopping them from asking permission to look around. It is even permissible to enter the property and knock on the front door. While a request to search may appear to be innocent or by contrast intimidating, it is merely a simple way for law enforcement to get around obtaining a search warrant. Utah residents are encouraged to be cordial when officers request warrantless search but to exercise their constitutional rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. For more information related to legal charges sustained during a warrantless police search, contact a qualified criminal defense attorney.


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