It's not something that many people think about if they're driving their car, get pulled over by the police, and end up getting arrested: What happens to your car? You're understandably too focused on your immediate predicament to consider whether it will stay there, on the side of the road, or whether the police can take it. The unfortunate fact, though, is that police can take your car and impound it after arresting you for a crime involving your vehicle, like operating under the influence (OUI). Worse, once your car has been impounded, the police can then search it, which could potentially lead to more criminal charges.
Police Can Inventory Your Car Without a Warrant
Typically, for police to legally conduct a search for evidence, they need a warrant. However, there are a lot of exceptions to this requirement. One of these exceptions to the warrant requirement allows police to conduct an inventory on impounded cars.
The theory behind this exception is that police departments need to protect themselves against lawsuits, claiming that they stole or lost things that were in the car when they impounded it. Making an inventory of all the things that are in the car when they obtained possession of it is supposed to create documentation that they didn't take anything.
However, the reality of the exception is that it allows police to conduct a very thorough search of your vehicle to find evidence of other crimes, such as drug possession.
There Are Limitations to a Police Inventory
While police are allowed to inventory your car after impounding it without getting a warrant, first, there are two limitations to their ability to do this search.
First, the inventory has to comply with the police department's inventory protocol. Every police department is supposed to have a set procedure for taking inventory of a vehicle that they impound. This procedure must be strictly complied with, for police to lawfully search your car. Unfortunately, because police are allowed to make their own rules when it comes to an inventory procedure, they tend to give themselves the power to do just about anything and look everywhere when they conduct an inventory, making it difficult for officers to abuse their power.
Second, your car has to be legally seized in order to be searched. If police impound your car for no reason, any evidence that they find during an inventory search will be excluded from court under the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine.
Maine Criminal Defense Attorney William T. Bly
If your car gets impounded, law enforcement will try their best to find an excuse to search it. Their ability to inventory your vehicle is only one of the ways that they can look for evidence inside. It may be their most tried and true method, but if it doesn't work, there are still other ways for them to justify a search of your car to find evidence of a crime there.