Most traffic stops involve a brief conversation between a driver and law enforcement that will result in a warning or possibly a citation if the driver exceeded the speed limit or had a burned-out blinker without realizing it. However, some traffic stops result in police officers detaining the driver and later arresting them.
In some circumstances, law enforcement officers will want to search the vehicle as well. If you get pulled over by police, knowing when police have the legal right to search your vehicle can help you assert your own rights and protect yourself from an overreach by a police officer.
Police can search a vehicle if you give them permission
The most common way that the police gain access to the interior of a vehicle is probably by soliciting permission from the driver. You might think that cooperating with the police will make them less likely to be suspicious of you and more likely to allow you to just go on with your day.
However, once you give them permission, officers could potentially go over your vehicle with a fine-tooth comb. If they find so much as the tiniest indication of a broken law, such as a single marijuana seed, they can arrest you and potentially charge you.
In other words, while the officer may not be happy with you when you deny them permission, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to give permission for a search and that doing so could leave you vulnerable if the officer finds anything they deem questionable.
An officer can search your vehicle with probable cause
Sometimes, evidence of a potential crime is in plain view when a police officer approaches a vehicle. An example could be half-empty liquor bottles in the backseat or an open beer can in your cup holder.
Items that look like drugs or drug paraphernalia or weapons could also provide immediate grounds for an officer to search the vehicle and possibly your person as well if they fear for the presence of another weapon. Just having a bad feeling isn’t enough reason to search without permission. An officer must have probable cause to suspect a crime.
An officer who gets a warrant can search your car extensively
If police officers have a compelling enough reason to search your vehicle, such as the belief that they could find bodily fluids that tie you to a crime or evidence of drug smuggling in the vehicle, a judge may very well sign a warrant allowing for a detailed, formal search of your vehicle.
Without a warrant, probable cause or your permission, officers cannot just go through your vehicle. If you believe you got arrested after officers wrongfully search your vehicle, the circumstances could potentially result in the exclusion of evidence obtained during that search from any criminal proceedings you face.