Can Police Search Your Car or Trunk in Utah Without a Warrant?

The requirement for police to get a warrant before searching your property or arresting you is an important protection that helps keep police from overreaching and prevents unjust search and seizure.  If a police officer confronts you and demands to search your property, you can always say no – but sometimes the law allows a police officer to search your car or the trunk of your car anyway. Our Salt Lake City criminal defense lawyers at Overson Law explain when a police officer can search your car or trunk without a warrant in Utah.

Do Police Need a Warrant in Utah to Search a Car?

In general, whenever a police officer wants to perform a search, they need to get a warrant and show probable cause.  Under the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, a police officer or a peace officer needs to go to a judge and get them to sign a warrant authorizing a search before they can infringe on someone’s privacy.  This warrant must be based on “probable cause,” which is to say that the officer can point to facts and evidence that show there was likely a crime committed, and that a search will uncover evidence of that crime.  While probable cause is usually necessary before a cop can search a car, there are some exceptions to the warrant requirement.

Since cars are moveable, there’s a logistical problem with a police officer being required to go to a judge and get a warrant before searching a car: it might not be there when they get back.  Because of this, a warrant is not usually necessary to search a car or the trunk of a car – but probable cause is still required in most cases.  This means that a police officer who stops you for a traffic offense or to investigate a DUI might not need to go get a warrant if they have probable cause to search your vehicle for evidence of drug possession or other crimes.

A police officer might be able to get probable cause based on what they see, hear, or smell within the car.  This is often called the “plain view” doctrine.  For instance, seeing drugs in the back seat or smelling marijuana inside the vehicle might give an officer probable cause that you committed a drug crime and allow them to search the car for drugs.

Standing outside the car and looking into it – or sniffing near the car – is not legally considered a “search.”  A police officer therefore does not need probable cause to do this.  Similarly, if police use a drug dog to sniff around your car from the outside, this is not considered a “search,” and police can use evidence that a drug dog alerted on your vehicle to help form probable cause to justify searching the vehicle.

Can Police Search a Vehicle Without Probable Cause in Utah?

Even though a warrant isn’t usually required for a vehicle search, the officer must still have probable cause.  However, there are some exceptions to these rules that allow a police officer to search a vehicle without probable cause:


If the owner of the vehicle gives the police officer permission to search the vehicle, the officer can search wherever they want inside the car.  This might stop them from getting into a locked glove compartment or another locked contained within the car, but it usually gives them legal access to search the vehicle and its trunk.  If the trunk locks separately, this consent might not extend to the trunk – especially if you did not hand over the keys.

Safety Concerns

If the police officer sees signs that someone is in trouble, they may be able to break into the car without your permission.  For instance, if a cop pulls you over and hears screams for help coming from the trunk, they will likely open the trunk.  This can be done with or without your permission and whether or not they have probable cause.  The risk that someone might have been kidnapped and might be in danger inside the trunk usually outweighs any privacy or property concerns.  Similarly, signs of blood or other evidence of injury might also allow this kind of search.

Search Incident to Arrest

When a police officer arrests you, they are allowed to search the immediate area around you to look for weapons within reach.  This is to protect officer safety, but police often use this as a tool to legally search parts of your vehicle like the driver’s seat, the area under your seat, the center console, and perhaps even the glove compartment – especially if it was open and accessible at the time of the arrest.  Courts often expand these rules, giving police surprising leeway to search your car.

Inventory Search

If the police arrest you and tow your car for safekeeping, they are permitted to go through it to take an inventory of what’s in the vehicle.  If the car is going to be in their possession, they are allowed to see what’s in it and make an inventory of it to make sure that they can’t be held responsible if you claim something went missing.  This may seem like a cheap excuse to search the vehicle, but it has been upheld in courts multiple times as a legal way to search a vehicle without probable cause.

Call Our Salt Lake City Criminal Defense Lawyers Today

If you were stopped for a traffic offense, investigated for DUI, or had your vehicle searched by police, call our Salt Lake City criminal defense lawyers immediately.  Our attorneys help challenge illegal searches and seizures and fight to keep police from using illegal evidence against you.  If you were arrested and are facing criminal charges, our attorneys may be able to help you fight the case against you.  For your free legal consultation, call us today at (801) 758-2287.