Being pulled over for a traffic stop can be nerve-wracking. Even more nerve-wracking, the officer asks to search your car. Do you say yes? Can you say no? You may not know what to do in this situation. Here are a few facts that may help you to know your rights during a traffic stop:
- The Fourth Amendment. Although the police only need reasonable suspicion of a crime to pull over your car for a traffic stop, the Constitution protects you from unreasonable searches and seizures. This applies to your vehicle, as well. That does not mean the police can never search your car. It does mean they need a reason to do so.
- Warrants. If the officer has a warrant to search your car, you have no choice. This does not happen often, however.
- Driver consent. Usually the officer asks the driver for permission, hoping the driver will be afraid to say no. If you consent to a search, the officer can look in any nook and cranny, including the trunk and glove box. The officer may ask you to leave the car, which you must do, but the law does not require you to answer any questions other than identifying yourself and showing proof of your license, registration and insurance. If you leave your car, shut the door and lock it.
- Probable cause. If you do not consent, the officer must have probable cause to search your car. Probable cause means the officer has good reason to believe you committed a crime or that the officer will find evidence of criminal activity in your car, based on the circumstances and evidence or the officer’s observations at the scene. The standard for your car is considered lower than a search of your home, however, based on the theory that you have a lower “expectation of privacy” in your car.
- Visible evidence. If the officer can see evidence of a crime out in the open in your car, they may be able to search the car without a warrant. For example, the officer may see drugs or a gun through the window.
- Protective sweep or Terry stop. During the traffic stop, if the officer has a “reasonable belief” that you or a passenger is armed and dangerous, the officer may search the passenger area and occupants for weapons. The law limits the search to safety purposes only. The officer may physically restrain you during the search.
- Arrest. If the officer arrests you, the situation changes, and the officer can search you and any area “immediately within your control.” Therefore, the officer can search the area you were sitting in the car that would have been within your reach.
- Impounded car. If the police lawfully impound your car, they can search the car to do an inventory. They can impound your car if they arrest you or your car is involved in an accident.
Nobody likes to going through a traffic stop, but keep in mind that you do have rights. You don’t have to agree to a search of your car just because the officer asks. And if an officer does search your car, they may not do it properly, which may nullify any evidence they find.