Earlier this month, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a New York gun case discussing the automobile exception to the search warrant requirement. Generally, law enforcement must obtain a search warrant that is supported by probable cause before they can conduct a search. However, over the years, courts have crafted a variety of exceptions to the warrant requirement. One of the most often cited exceptions is the automobile exception.
The automobile exception came about based on the understanding that vehicles are mobile. Thus, if police officers were required to obtain a warrant to search a car, there would be a risk that the officers would not be able to locate the car again, or that any evidence inside the car could be hidden or destroyed. Thus, if an officer has probable cause to believe that there may be evidence or contraband inside a vehicle, the officer can search the vehicle without a warrant.
According to the court’s opinion, police officers witnessed the defendant give a carton of cigarettes to another man in exchange for money. The officers approached the defendant, who was standing near the open door of a van. As the officers got closer to the van, they could see that it was full of duffle bags and that one of the bags contained additional cartons of cigarettes. One of the officers then opened one of the packs in the carton that the defendant had just exchanged, noticing that there was no New York tax stamp. Officers arrested the defendant. Before driving the defendant’s car back to the station, one of the officers conducted a “quick check” of the vehicle, finding a firearm under the passenger seat.