Police can, and often do, impound vehicles. Unsurprisingly, if the vehicle has been involved in a serious enough traffic offense, the police may take custody of it. However, there are several other situations where police may tow a vehicle away. In fact, there are even occasions where police may impound a vehicle even if a crime hasn’t been committed.

What Are Situations Where Police Can Impound a Car?

Whether police can impound a car will ultimately depend on the specific circumstances that brought the officer into contact with the vehicle in the first place. Generally, police will not be able to confiscate a vehicle due to a routine traffic stop or because the car is illegally parked for a short period of time. There are three general situations where police can impound a vehicle.

  1. Car Was Involved in a Crime – If a car was involved in a crime, police may be able to justify impounding it. The reason is simple - the alternative, leaving a vehicle on the road, is unsafe. Crimes that may result in a vehicle being impounded include driving under the influence (DUI) and driving with a suspended license.
  2. Evidence of a Crime – While not very common, it is possible for a car itself to be evidence of a crime. For example, if someone is stopped for reckless driving, most states allow the office to confiscate the vehicle. Moreover, using the vehicle to assault someone, or if the vehicle is involved in vehicular manslaughter, police may be able to justify impounding it.
  3. Public Safety – Police are primarily enforcers of the law, but they are also given the task of taking care of the community. Thus, if a car is parked in an unsafe area, is seemingly abandoned, or poses any other type of risk to public safety, police may justify having it towed and impounded.

Can Police Search an Impounded Car?

Similar to whether police can impound a car in the first place, whether they will be able to then search the impounded car will simply depend on specific facts and circumstances.

However, as a general rule, police will conduct an inventory search of a vehicle after it is impounded. These searches do not require a warrant and they do not require probable cause. In fact, these searches generally are not for evidence of a crime, but rather to simply document evidence, and to protect the police from hidden dangers or allegations of theft.

How extensive or invasive these searches are will depend on the law of the state where the vehicle is impounded. Some states limit inventory searches to plain view, whereas others allow for complete sweeps of the vehicle.

Should I Contact a Lawyer?

Police are not always aware of the nuances of when towing and impounding a car is appropriate. Additionally, it is possible that police conducted an unlawful search of an impounded vehicle. If your vehicle has been impounded unlawfully or you suspect that it was searched illegally as a result of being impounded, contacting a criminal defense lawyer is the best way to learn about your rights.