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Can You Sue The Police For An Illegal Vehicle Search?

June 11, 2024

The Constitution provides all citizens with protection against unreasonable police searches. These protections lie in our Fourth Amendment rights. But what happens when a police officer conducts an illegal search of your car and finds contraband?

Can you sue the police for an illegal vehicle search?

The short answer is probably not, but let’s get into the nuances of your protections and course of action in the event of an illegal search.

Understanding Illegal Searches 

To better understand your rights as they pertain to search and seizure, it’s important to understand the basic rights given to all Americans under the Fourth Amendment.

What is the Fourth Amendment? 

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution states: 

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized.”

In other words, the police cannot search or take your things without a good reason. More on that later.

What is an unreasonable search? 

An unreasonable search occurs if:

  1. There is no legal search warrant signed by a judge or magistrate that describes the place, person, or items to be searched or seized.
  2. There is no probable cause to believe that a specific person, place, or vehicle contains criminal evidence.
  3. The search or seizure extends beyond what is authorized by the warrant.

If contraband is found during an illegal search, the exclusionary rule can go into effect. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Mapp v. Ohio confirmed that this rule applies to evidence from unlawful searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment.

Under the exclusionary rule, illegally obtained evidence may be suppressed by a judge in your criminal case. 

Additionally, the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine extends the exclusionary rule to make evidence inadmissible in court if the evidence was obtained using information obtained through an illegal search. The fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine was first recognized in  Silverthorne Lumber Co., Inc. v United States in 1920.

can you sue police for illegal vehicle search

Exceptions To Unreasonable Search And Seizures

While the Fourth Amendment protects citizens from an unreasonable search without a warrant, there are exceptions to the warrant requirement:


If you agree to a search, you forfeit the right to later contest its legality, even if the officer finds illegal items.

Search Incident to Lawful Arrest

During an arrest, officers can search you and nearby areas for weapons or evidence.

Plain View 

Officers can seize items clearly visible without needing special equipment or opening anything, like spotting a gun through a car window.

Exigent (Emergency) Circumstances

In emergencies, officers can search without a warrant, such as when they believe the evidence will be destroyed or someone is in danger.

Stop and Frisk

Officers can briefly detain and pat down suspects if they have a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity and believe the person may be armed.

To learn more, check out our in-depth resource on when police can search you or your property. 

What Are Probable Cause & Reasonable Suspicion?

What do these terms really mean and how do they apply to your rights against unreasonable searches and seizures?

What is probable cause?

Probable cause means police need sufficient information to justify an arrest, search, or seizure. It prevents arbitrary actions by law enforcement, requiring a legitimate reason for their actions. 

This concept is rooted in the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. Without probable cause or a lawfully obtained warrant, such actions are unconstitutional.

What is reasonable suspicion?

Reasonable suspicion is a lower threshold that allows police to detain someone based on minimal evidence or suspicion of involvement in criminal activity. 

This standard enables brief stops and limited searches, such as a pat-down for weapons, without meeting the higher probable cause requirement.

Both standards aim to balance law enforcement needs with individual rights. Probable cause is necessary for warrants, arrests, and seizures, while reasonable suspicion allows temporary detentions and limited searches.

How is probable cause determined? 

“Probable cause exists when there is a fair probability that a search will result in evidence of a crime being discovered” Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213 (1983)

Probable cause is necessary for a search warrant, meaning there’s a fair chance evidence of a crime will be found. For warrant searches, probable cause must be supported by an affidavit or recorded testimony. 

Judges issue warrants if the affidavit provides credible information showing probable cause. Police officers’ observations, experience, and training are key factors. Information from victims or witnesses can also be crucial. 

police illegal vehicle search

What Happens If Police Find Contraband During An Illegal Search? 

The exclusionary rule renders illegally obtained evidence inadmissible in a criminal trial. In other words, the evidence can’t be used against you in criminal court. 

However, there are three key exceptions to the exclusionary rule:

  1. Attenuation of the Taint: If there are significant intervening factors, such as time or actions by others, the link between illegal police activity (taint) and the evidence can become weak enough that suppressing the evidence serves no purpose.
  2. Independent Source: Evidence initially obtained unlawfully can be admitted if it was also discovered through a separate, legal means.
  3. Inevitable Discovery: Evidence found due to a constitutional violation is admissible if it would have been inevitably discovered through lawful methods.

While illegally obtained evidence can help you in your criminal case, the law is different for civil actions. 

Generally, if the police find contraband in your possession or in or on your property, even if the search was illegal, you cannot recover damages for the officers’ unlawful conduct.  

Of course, if the police lie about finding contraband, or if they plant it on you or on your property, you can recover damages if you can prove your case.  

Motion to Suppress 

After consulting with an attorney, the next step in seeking justice for an illegal search that resulted in the seizure of contraband could be to file a “motion to suppress.” 

A motion to suppress is a request by a criminal defendant to exclude certain evidence from a trial, arguing that the evidence was obtained in violation of constitutional rights. 

This motion is based on the “exclusionary rule,” which prevents evidence obtained through unlawful searches and seizures from being used in court.

unlawful vehicle search

Know Your Rights When Interacting With The Police

Here are some guides on how to interact with the police in various situations. 

Can You Sue a Police Officer for Illegally Searching Your Car?

As discussed above, as a general rule, you cannot sue the police if they actually find contraband in your possession or on your property. However, if they planted the evidence or if their claim of finding contraband is a lie, you can file a lawsuit. 

When can you sue the police?

You can sue the police if they have violated your constitutional rights through actions such as excessive force, false arrest, unlawful detention, or illegal searches and seizures. 

To succeed in such a lawsuit, you typically need to prove that the police acted without legal justification and caused you harm.

What is an example of unlawful search and seizure?

An example of an unlawful search and seizure is when police conduct a search without a warrant or probable cause, and without any exigent circumstances or consent. 

For instance, if police enter your home without a warrant and without your permission, and they do not have a valid reason to believe that evidence will be destroyed or someone is in immediate danger, the search could be deemed unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment.

How do you sue the police?

To sue the police it is best if you consult an attorney to see if you have a case. The attorney may file a tort claim against the municipality for state law claims depending on the state. 

can you sue police for searching without a warrant

Have Your Rights Been Violated? Contact Jordan Marsh

The Law Office of Jordan Marsh has a proven track record of successfully handling cases involving police misconduct and illegal searches. With extensive experience in navigating complex legal systems, the Law office of Jordan Marsh is well-equipped to advocate for victims of unlawful police actions. 

If you believe your rights have been violated, contact us today for your free consultation to see if you have a case. 

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