Vehicle impoundment refers to a specific legal process in which a person’s vehicle is placed into an impoundment lot, or vehicle impound lot. This is a place for holding vehicles until they are given back to the owner. Law enforcement officers can impound your vehicle for a number of reasons.
The most common example of this would be if you are arrested for a traffic violation, such as a DUI. If no one else is present and able to drive your car away from the scene, the officers may impound it.
Some other examples of circumstances in which the police may impound a car include, but are not limited to:
- Evading the police;
- Careless driving;
- Organizing, promoting, or participating in drag racing;
- Driving a vehicle that is not registered;
- Driving a vehicle that is not insured;
- Driving without a license; and
- Driving with a suspended license.
There are some occasions in which the police may impound your vehicle, even if no crime has been committed. Officers may be allowed to impound a vehicle if it’s a danger to public safety.
When Can Police Impound a Car?
Whether the police can legally impound your car generally depends on the specific circumstances of the situation. Generally speaking, police are not allowed to impound the vehicle simply because the vehicle was involved in a routine traffic stop. Another example of when the police cannot generally impound a vehicle is if the vehicle has been illegally parked for a short period of time.
However, there are three situations where police can impound a vehicle:
- Car was Involved in a Crime: As previously mentioned, if the car was involved in a crime, police can justify their impounding it. The reasoning behind this is that it would be unsafe to leave the car unattended on the road. If the driver is arrested for driving under the influence, or driving with a suspended license, the driver would not be able to move their car to a safe location. If no one else is available or able to move the car safely from the location, then the officers may impound the car in order to remove the potential safety hazard;
- Evidence of a Crime: The car itself could potentially be evidence of a crime, although this tends to be a less common scenario than the vehicle being involved in a crime. Many states allow police to impound a car if it is involved in a case of reckless driving, vehicular manslaughter, or if the car has been used to assault someone. Additionally, officers may sometimes suspect that evidence of a crime is stored inside the vehicle. The arresting officer can request to impound a vehicle in order to locate evidence of a crime that cannot be readily removed at the scene; and/or
- Public Safety: If a car is parked in an unsafe area; the vehicle appears to be abandoned; or, the vehicle poses some other threat to public safety, police may justify having the car towed and impounded.
How Long Can Police Hold Your Car In Impound?
State laws vary in regards to how long police can hold your car in impound. Additionally, the amount of time in which a vehicle may be impounded can vary based on the reason why the vehicle was impounded.
For example, if your car is part of an ongoing criminal investigation, the police can hold your car for the pendency of the criminal investigation. If no charges are filed after the investigation is concluded, your vehicle should then be returned. If charges are filed against you, then the vehicle may be held for the entirety of the criminal case, unless your attorney files a motion for the court to release your vehicle.
It is important to note that your vehicle may accumulate storage fees for every day your vehicle sits in impound. Therefore, if no charges were filed against you, then it is important to retrieve your vehicle as soon as possible, by paying off the existing impound and storage fees.
If your vehicle was impounded subsequent to an arrest, such as driving without a license or registration etc., then the police may hold your vehicle in impound for a locally designated period of time. It is important to research your local municipality’s administrative process for impounded vehicles, as that will dictate when you will be able to retrieve your vehicle from impound, as well as the maximum charges that may be charged for impounding your vehicle.
If your vehicle was impounded subsequent to a search warrant, then you may need a court order to get your vehicle released from impound. If the court finds that there are no pending charges against you, they will order your vehicle be released back to you.
Can The Police Search an Impounded Car?
Whether the police can search an impounded car will depend on the specifics of the circumstances. That being said, police will generally conduct an inventory search of the vehicle once it has been impounded. They will catalog the items found during the search.
Law enforcement is not looking for evidence of a crime in these searches; rather, they are intended to document the contents of the vehicle itself. This is also to protect the police from any hidden dangers that may be in the vehicle, or accusations of theft. These inventory searches do not require a warrant, and they do not require probable cause.
How thorough these impound searches can be will depend on the laws of your state. In almost every state, officers can take inventory of any object that is out in plain view. Some states allow officers to search every bit of the impounded vehicle for their inventory search, while other states allow only a brief sweep of the car for items.
Can I Contest an Inventory Search of My Car?
There is a chance that you may not be able to stop an inventory search before it happens. However, if the police impound your vehicle and find evidence of a crime in it, and you are then charged with a crime, you may be able to contest the search. If you are successful, the evidence found in the search will not be admissible in court.
It is important to note that when you are fighting the inventory search, you will need to prove that the officers acted unreasonably, or acted in bad faith. Making this argument can be difficult, but not impossible.
An example of this would be if the officers purposely violated the law in order to impound and search your vehicle. That would be considered an instance of acting in bad faith, and the evidence found during the search could be inadmissible in court. However, honest mistakes are not considered to be sufficient enough to win an argument regarding an inventory search.
Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with Impounded Car Issues?
If your vehicle has been impounded by the police, you should consult with a skilled and knowledgeable criminal lawyer. An experienced and local criminal lawyer attorney will provide you with advice regarding your rights and options.
Additionally, the police are not always mindful of when it is appropriate to tow and impound a vehicle. If you believe that your vehicle was unjustly impounded, or searched illegally once it was impounded, a criminal attorney can provide assistance.