When police pulled you over, it may have been because your taillight was out or you forgot to use a turn signal when you changed lanes. However, even if it was something more serious, like running a stop sign or speeding, you may have been surprised and confused when the officer asked to search your car.
The Constitution of the United States protects you from police searches without good reason. During a routine traffic stop, police may not search your vehicle except under specific circumstances, for example:
- Seeing something illegal in your car, such as drugs, weapons or open containers of alcohol
- Smelling alcohol or marijuana in your car or on your breath or clothing
- Receiving your permission to search
Police may consider the sight or smell of prohibited substances to be “probable cause,” allowing them to search your vehicle legally. However, it is important to understand that probable cause to pull you over is not the same as probable cause to search your car.
Knowing your rights
Unlike warning you of your right to remain silent at the time of arrest, police do not always tell you that you have the right to refuse a search when pulled over. If an officer has no probable cause, you do not have to consent. In fact, if you give permission, the court may automatically consider the search legal and allow police to present anything found in the car as evidence against you.
Legal advocates emphasize the importance of remaining polite and respectful during traffic stops but persistent in your refusal to consent to any search. Physically resisting may get you into serious trouble, but advisors recommend repeating calmly and firmly that you do not consent to the search.
Law enforcement tactics
In the course of doing their duty, police may try to get you to consent to a search by taking advantage of your nervousness at being pulled over. They may ask questions to elicit your permission for a search. Some tactics officers may use include the following:
- Phrasing a request to search in the form of a statement or a command
- Coaxing you to prove your innocence by showing you have nothing to hide
- Implying that refusing to allow them to search your car makes you look guilty
- Telling you that things will go much better for you if you consent to the search
- Asking questions to lead you to admit to breaking the law
Often, unless police have arrested or detained you, if you simply ask if you are free to go, they will allow you to leave. Some people report having to ask numerous times before officers admit they have the right to go.
Your vital right to legal counsel
If, despite your protests, police search your vehicle and find something incriminating, you may be able to have that evidence suppressed and the subsequent charges dropped. This may require the skill and determination of an experienced attorney.
On the other hand, if police detain or arrest you, having legal counsel may be your primary concern. While officers count on the fact that you may not be aware of your civil rights, they may not be so confident when you ask for a lawyer. Having an attorney to defend your rights may mean the difference between facing harsh penalties and returning to your normal life.