When are police legally allowed to impound your vehicle?
One scenario seems obvious: Cops can impound a car when it is either evidence or the instrument of a crime. But sometimes, police may also be allowed to seize a car if it's simply a danger to public safety.
Getting your car back from a police impound lot can be expensive and legally frustrating, so here's an overview of when police can legitimately impound your car:
1. Car Is/Contains Evidence of a Crime.
When a suspect is legally arrested, an officer may search that person as a "search incident to arrest" as long as it is possible to retrieve evidence of the crime via the search. (That means a search is not appropriate for just a simple speeding or traffic violation.)
Sometimes officers suspect that evidence of a crime is stored in a vehicle -- especially if the suspect was recently driving. An arresting officer can request to impound a car in order to locate evidence of a crime "which cannot be readily removed" at the scene.
Other times, the car itself may be the evidence of an arrestable offense, like reckless driving or vehicular manslaughter. In such cases, police often impound the car in order to preserve evidence.
Either way, police typically must have probable cause to believe that the vehicle to be impounded contains evidence, or was used in the commission of a criminal offense.
2. Car Presents a Public Safety Hazard.
Outside of their role as criminal investigators, cops are charged with being community caretakers. That means they can remove vehicles from an area if they believe its presence creates a public danger or risk.
Courts will generally uphold police impounds of a car when:
- The vehicle has no available driver and is impeding traffic,
- Its presence presents a danger to public safety, or
- Doing so will prevent a danger of vandalism and/or theft.
The impounding must be in line with normal police procedures. Courts have not approved of cars being impounded as a pretext for searching them.
For example, if a driver is arrested for DUI on a public highway, police can impound his or her car as a risk to other drivers if there is no other driver present. Once in the impound lot, police may legally search a vehicle (including the trunk) as part of a standard inventory search.
If your car has been impounded, you may want to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney to discuss your options.
- LAPD rescinds vehicle impound policy (Los Angeles Times)
- Can Police Search Closed Containers in a Car? (FindLaw's Blotter)
- Vehicle Search and Seizure (FindLaw)
- Ask a Question About Investigation, Arrest, & Trial (FindLaw Answers)