Police are only allowed to search your vehicle under very limited circumstances. However, too many consent to incriminating searches because they do not know they can refuse or they feel intimidated. This information about police and vehicle searches can help you if you face one of these encounters.
You may refuse the search
It cannot be emphasized enough: If an officer asks to search your car (as opposed to ordering you out of the vehicle), say no. You are not required to consent to a voluntary search. If the officer has probable cause to believe that you did something wrong and are carrying contraband, the officer can arrest you and search without a warrant or your consent. There is no reason to request a search except to fish for evidence or intimidate.
Officers will often engage in verbal gymnastics to force your consent. They may accuse you of trying to hide something or claim you committed a crime. Do not allow them to pressure you. The Fourth Amendment protects your right to be free from these searches, but it does not require an officer to tell you that you can refuse. Failing to consent to a vehicle search is not admission of a crime nor can an officer arrest you for that alone.
You can end the exchange
You are not detained or arrested unless the officer goes through required procedures. Until that time, you can end the encounter at any time—even if the officer is halfway through your trunk. If you receive push back, just respond calmly, "Are you arresting me or may I go home?"It is likely you may need to ask that question several times before the officer relents. Do not touch the officer, but do not be afraid to insist that he get out of your belongings. Be firm, be persistent, and be courageous.
You may ask for a lawyer
If the officer tells you that you cannot leave, you should inform him or her that it amounts to an arrest and you wish to have your attorney present. Exercise your right to remain silent and do not answer any questions during this time.
When is a search reasonable?
Legitimate vehicle searches do not require your consent. That is due to an available search warrant or circumstances that would justify such a search. These can include:
- Plain sight. Evidence of illegal activity visible in plain sight can justify a warrantless search. For example, if there is a bag of marijuana or cocaine in the back seat of your car, and you are pulled over, having these drugs in the open can justify a search for more drugs.
- Probable cause. If a car is seen engaging in suspicious behavior, that may warrant a stop and search. For example, if the vehicle is seen speeding from a crime scene, that can allow for a search due to the possibility of finding evidence of a crime. There has to be a cause and effect link and cannot simply be based on a hunch.
- After an arrest. If you are arrested, your person and vehicle can be searched for evidence of a crime.
- Officer safety. Weapons in plain sight, the possibility of concealed weapons, or other circumstances that make officers doubt their safety allow searches for dangerous implements. This is considered a protective sweep of the car.
- Impounded vehicles. Cars towed and impounded can be searched without a warrant, including an examination of all locked containers inside. That said, the tow and impound need to occur due to a crime, not just because the police wish to search it.
If a search is not justified or illegal, the items found in that search cannot be used in criminal prosecution. That is why defense attorneys work to check the legality of searches. Other more technical issues can also get the products of improper searches thrown out as evidence. That is why it is important to discuss all matters pertaining to vehicle searches with a defense attorney.
The most important part to remember is that you never have to consent to a voluntary search. If you are asked in the first place, there is probably no evidence against you anyway. Stay calm and do not be intimidated. Knowing what is required for a legal search is the first step to maintaining that composure and possibly your freedom.