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Vehicle Searches Incident to Arrest

As previously discussed, police officers need a search warrant anytime they want to search a motor vehicle. Warrantless vehicle searches in Minnesota are presumed to be unconstitutional. However, there are several exceptions to this rule. One exception is known as the search incident to arrest exception.

In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court Established a New Rule Governing When Police Can Search a Motor Vehicle Following the Arrest of an Occupant

Following a lawful arrest of an occupant of a motor vehicle, police may now search the passenger area of the vehicle if the arrested person is within reaching distance of the passenger area of the vehicle at the time of arrest or if it is reasonable for the police to believe they will find evidence related to the reason for the arrest in the vehicle.  

In other words, the police can search the passenger area of the vehicle if the arrested person could possibly access evidence or a dangerous weapon at the time of arrest or if the police believe there is evidence of the reason for the arrest in the vehicle.  It does not matter if it is the driver or a passenger that is arrested.

This search warrant exception also allows the police to search any containers, bags, backpacks, purses, etc. that may be in the vehicle. An argument can be made that if police are basing the search on their belief that evidence related to the reason for arrest will be found in the vehicle, then the search should be limited to only those containers that could reasonably conceal that evidence.  

For example, following a DWI arrest, the police could search containers or bags large enough to hold cans or bottles of alcohol. But it would probably be unreasonable for the police to open or look into a cigarette pack because it is unlikely alcohol could be concealed in such a container.  

If the police found a bag of controlled substances in the cigarette pack, an argument could be made to suppress that evidence as the search was unrelated to the search incident to arrest exception.

The Search Incident to Arrest Exception Does Not Allow the Police to Search the Trunk or Engine Area of the Vehicle Because Prior Case Law Has Determined That the Engine and Trunk Are Not Part of the Passenger Area of a Vehicle.

The search incident to arrest exception does not allow police to search a vehicles trunk or engine area because prior case law has determined that the engine and trunk are not part of the passenger area of a vehicle.

However, if the arrested person happened to be standing near an open trunk at the time of arrest, then the search incident to arrest exception could allow the police to search the trunk because it may be reasonable to believe the arrested person could access evidence or a weapon from the trunk at the time of the arrest.

Contact Us

If you feel you may have been unfairly subjected to a warrantless vehicle search, call our Minnesota criminal defense lawyers today.  Our lawyers will review the facts and circumstances surrounding your arrest and warrantless vehicle search and determine whether the search falls under the search incident to arrest exception.  

Our Minneapolis/St. Paul criminal defense lawyers will put together an aggressive defense of your case and hold the police accountable for unlawful warrantless vehicle searches and fight to have the evidence suppressed.

Author Photo John T. Arechigo, Esq.

Attorney John Arechigo has a passion for criminal defense in St. Paul, MN. John received his J.D., from Hamline University School of Law and also carries a Bachelor of Arts from, The University of Minnesota. John was named Attorney of the Year for 2019 by Minnesota Lawyer. Additionally, John was also named as a 2019 Rising Star and was selected to Minnesota Super Lawyers in 2021. He devotes nearly 100% of his practice to defending individuals charged with a crime.

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