Law enforcement officers can actually impound your car for a variety of reasons. For example, if you are arrested for a traffic violation (like a DUI), and no one else is present and able to drive your car away from the scene, the officers may impound it.

However, this is not the only scenario, and there are occasions when police may impound your vehicle even if no crime has been committed. Sometimes officers may be allowed to impound a vehicle if it’s a danger to public safety.

It can be frustrating (and sometimes expensive) to get your car back from the police impound lot. Before you find yourself dealing with the hassle, though, it’s a good idea to know when the police can legitimately impound your car.

When Can Police Impound a Car?

Whether the police can impound your car generally depends on the specific circumstances of the situation. Generally, police cannot impound the vehicle just because it was involved in a routine traffic stop or 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: If the car was involved in a crime, police can justify impounding it. The reasoning behind this is fairly simple — 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 cannot move their car to a safe location. If no one else is available (or no passenger is able) to move the car safely from the location, then the officers may impound the car to remove the potential safety hazard;
  • Evidence of a Crime: Less common than the “involved in a crime” scenario, the car itself could potentially be evidence of 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.
    • Sometimes officer suspect that evidence of a crime is stored inside the vehicle as well. The arresting officer can request to impound a car to locate evidence of a crime that cannot be readily removed at the scene; and
  • Public Safety: We often see police officers as the enforcers of law, but they are also tasked with the responsibility of keeping the community safe. If a car is parked in an unsafe area, appears to be abandoned, or poses some other threat to public safety, police may justify having the car towed and impounded.

Can the Police Search an Impounded Car?

That depends. Just like with the question of whether law enforcement can impound the car in the first place, the question of searching the impounded car will depend on the specific facts and circumstances of the situation.

That being said, police will generally conduct an inventory search of the vehicle after it has been impounded, and catalog the items found during the search. Law enforcement is not looking for evidence of a crime in these searches — they are intended to document the contents of the vehicle itself and 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 depends on the laws of your state. In almost all states, officers can take inventory of any object that is out in plain view. Some states allow officers to search every bit of the car, into every nook and cranny, for their inventory search. Other states allow only a brief sweep of the car for items.

Can I Fight an Inventory Search of My Car?

You may not be able to stop an inventory search before it happens. However, if the police impound your car 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 win, the evidence found in the search will not be admissible in court.

When fighting the inventory search, you will have to prove certain things — that the officers acted unreasonably, or acted in bad faith. Making this argument can be difficult, but not impossible.

For example, if the officers purposely violated the law to impound and search your vehicle, that would be an instance of acting in bad faith, and the evidence found during the search could be inadmissible in court. However, honest mistakes are not enough to win an argument regarding an inventory search.  

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with Impounded Car Issues?

If your car has been impounded, you may want to consult a criminal defense lawyer to advise you about your rights. Police officers are not always aware of the nuances and specific details of when towing and impounding a car is appropriate.

If you suspect that your car has been unjustly impounded, or that it was searched illegally after being impounded, the right lawyer can help you out. Your attorney can discuss the facts and circumstances of your case with you to get a detailed picture of what happened, and then guide you through the next steps as you navigate the legal system.