automobile exception

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The "automobile exception" is an exception to the general requirement of a warrant for searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment.  Under the exception, a vehicle may be searched without a warrant when evidence or contraband may possibly be removed from the scene due to the mobility of a vehicle such that it is not practical to secure a warrant without jeopardizing the potential evidence.

For instance, the automobile exception allows an officer to make a warrantless traffic stop and search a truck of a vehicle when gun parts were observed in plain view on the front seat of the vehicle. 

Notably, the automobile exception applies to all types of automobiles and the vehicle does not need to be in operation for the exception to apply. For example, the automobile exception has been found to apply to parked motor homes. 

Nonetheless, while the automobile exception grants a police officer the right to search a vehicle, that right is not absolute. The Supreme Court held that a lockbox or other container within a vehicle cannot be searched without a warrant unless there exists separate probable cause to believe contraband is hidden within them. 

[Last updated in June of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]