Featured News 2018 When Police Can & Cannot Search Your Car

When Police Can & Cannot Search Your Car

It happens at an alarming rate. You're driving home, driving to work, or running an errand...and all of a sudden, you see flashing lights in your rearview mirror. When it happens, it's important to keep your calm.

The police will be eyeing your car like a hawk from the moment they pull you over to the moment you drive away (or they arrest you). Everything you do and say will determine if the police can build a case against you. Even the way you respond could determine whether not the officer chooses to write you a ticket...or arrest you.

Cooperate Calmly & Deliberately

From the very beginning, it is important that you communicate your cooperation with their requests. Your cooperation, however, is not a blanket surrender—you are not legally obligated to comply with every request. When they ask for your license and registration, hand them over, then return your hands to the wheel. At this time, the officer could look around your cab with a flashlight or could even ask that you step outside of the vehicle—both of which you need to comply with.

However, what happens if they ask to search your car?

Your Right to Refuse a Search

Our Constitutional rights protect us from unwarranted search and seizure—and your rights apply to the inside of your car. While a law-abiding citizen certainly does not have to be afraid of having their vehicle searched, that's not the point. The point is you have a choice, and choosing to affirm your rights is not a statement of guilt. It doesn't even imply guilt.

In almost every police encounter, an officer performing a routine traffic stop will not have the right to search through your vehicle, including the trunk. This does not mean that they are never able to search through your car.

The following conditions are enough to permit a lawful search:
  • Consent searches. These are searches that are allowed because you consented to them. Should you verbally comply with the search request, you can't take it back. It becomes a legal search on your word, and every material gained during a search could be used as grounds for arrest.

  • Plain view rule. In some cases, material does not need to be found in a search for it to be confiscated as evidence. Should it be placed into plain view (e.g. sitting on the passenger seat), seizure does not require a warrant.

  • Exigent circumstances. Exigent circumstances refer to situations where the officer feels as if there is a need for a rapid response—specifically if someone is in danger (e.g. the officer believes there's a bomb or a kidnapping victim in the trunk). In those situations, need for a warrant is waived. These, naturally, fall into a very gray area.

  • Probable cause. If there are extenuating circumstances that give the officer reasonable reason to believe there is something in the car, this could be enough. For example, if the car has marijuana smoke clouding up the windows, the marijuana does not necessarily need to be in plain view for the officer to have grounds to perform a search.

  • Arrest searches. If you are arrested lawfully for an offense of any nature (such as drunk driving), then a search would be legally permissible.

If you're not arrested, contraband is not in plain view, there's no immediate danger to the officer or anyone else, and there's no reason for the officer to suspect you've committed a crime, then whether or not your car gets searched is up to you.

In fact, the vast majority of searches are consent searches—meaning most people voluntarily waive their rights because the officer asked (or more likely, because the suspect didn't know they could legally refuse). If you don't want to be searched, politely and firmly say, "Officer, I appreciate that you're doing your job, but I don't consent to searches without a warrant." Use those exact words—it'll be 100% clear that the officers won't be able to push you around.

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