In many situations the answer is "yes." The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits unreasonable search and seizures, and generally requires that police obtain a search warrant before they search a place where a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy. There are, however, many exceptions to the warrant requirement.
The United States Supreme Court loosened the warrant requirement in a prohibition era case called Carroll v. U.S., 267 U.S. 132, 45 S. Ct. 280; 69 L.Ed. 543 (1925). In this case, the Court outlined what is now known as the "automobile exception" to the search warrant requirement. In short, if an officer has probable cause to search a vehicle, then in many instances that officer will be allowed to search the vehicle without first obtaining a search warrant. A classic example of this could occur when a police officer has lawfully pulled over a car for a traffic violation, and as he approaches the car the officer smells a strong odor of marijuana. In that situation, the officer may be able to search the car for the marijuana without obtaining a search warrant.
Another exception to the search warrant requirement that applies to automobiles is a "search incident to a lawful arrest." The United States Supreme Court has allowed officers to perform a warrantless search of a parts of a motor vehicle in the interest of officer safety, the prevention of escape, and the destruction of evidence.
One of the most used exceptions to the search warrant requirement concerning automobiles is the "inventory search." An inventory search is a warrantless search of a lawfully impounded vehicle to allow the police to determine the contents of the vehicle for administrative functions. For example, if a person is arrested for DWI, the police will usually have the car towed. Before they tow the car, they will often take an inventory of what is inside so that they can provide the car's owner with a receipt to account for everything that is in the car. If in the process of inventorying the car the police find cocaine in the glove compartment, they may take the cocaine. Depending on the facts the driver may then be charged with Possession of a Controlled Substance.
While there are several exceptions to the warrant requirement, there are also many situations where officers illegally search a car without a warrant. If you have been charged with a crime based on a search of your car, call us.