While low-level use of marijuana will not likely send a consumer to jail, recreational use of the drug is still illegal in Virginia. This legal status means that if police find pot in a car, they may arrest the driver and anyone else in the car. But what circumstances allow a police officer to search a vehicle?

If the police conduct an illegal search, the victim may be able to sue the police for their actions. Some situations will allow police to perform a search without a warrant, which can keep their search from being illegal.


The easiest method police use to search a vehicle without a warrant is gaining consent from the car owner. The police need to ask the driver if they have permission to search the car. If the owner gives consent, then the police are free to explore the vehicle entirely.

Police safety

If the police have reason to believe that there is a threat to their safety inside the vehicle, they can search the car without a warrant. Threats to safety may include suspicion of a hidden weapon or even a hidden person in the vehicle.

Probable cause

Probable cause is the exception in the U.S. Constitution that grants law enforcement the right to search a vehicle or other property. Examples of this include searching for a fleeing criminal, a search to protect the loss of evidence, or even seeing drugs or paraphernalia in plain sight. Police seeing any paraphernalia like a joint or bong through a car window is enough to grant them the legal authority to search.


If the police arrest a person from inside the vehicle, they can conduct a search of the car in pursuit of further evidence that supports the arrest.

What happens if the police conduct an illegal search?

If police illegal search a vehicle, do not fight them on their decision. Any resistance may cause someone to receive charges they may have earlier avoided. Let the police conduct their business, and find an attorney afterward to pursue legal action.