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Pulled Over: What are an Officer’s Rights to Search Your Vehicle?

Can an officer search your vehicle during a traffic stop? Here I will answer some questions to help understand what your rights are.

Can you say no to the officer wanting to search your car?

There is no simple answer. It really depends on the situation. There are several ways an officer is justified in searching your car. However, with a routine traffic stop and no other suspicious reasons to search the officer can not search.

Consent to Search

Typically, if an officer wants to search your vehicle on a traffic stop the officer will ask for consent to search. As an example if you are pulled over for speeding and the officer wants to search your car he will ask if it alright for him to search. At this point the ball is in your court. You have the RIGHT to say no. What the officer typically does is make it sound like you don’t have a choice. But you really do. Common police tactics are to say something like “it is all right if I search your car, right?” While asking the officer continually nods his head. This is meant to lull you into a sense of comfort and trust for the officer. But it still boils down to you giving consent. If you don’t want the officer to search then say no and stick with that. At this point without Probably Cause the officer can not search your car.

If the officer wants to get into car to search he must find another way. Lawfully.

Probable Cause (PC)

Probable cause is a standard that must be met before a non consensual search can be made. Basically it means that the officer can articulate that he has observed (through use of his senses, sight, hearing, smell, etc) criminal activity has occurred; something more that a traffic infraction. To put probable cause into a number or percentage the standard would be that there is a 51% chance (more than 50%) that criminal activity is or has occurred. Another way to put it is “more likely so than not”.

In a typical traffic stop (speeding, stop sign (light), tailgating, etc) the officer does not have PC to search your car. However, if when he approaches your car and you open the window and smoke comes billowing out that smells like marijuana then that would constitute PC.

There are situations in which PC on a traffic stop may already be in place. If your vehicle was just used in a crime or you or your occupants committed a crime where eyewitnesses described your vehicle and have given the license plate then there may already be enough PC to search your car.

Other Searches

There are at least two other searches where an officer can lawfully search your vehicle. The first is called a search incident to arrest. In this situation you or another occupant may be arrested for a crime (probable cause standard applies to arrest as well). The officer is justified in searching the cab area of the vehicle where the arrestee was sitting in the vehicle. This has been upheld by the US Supreme Court as being allowed. Anything found during this search which is deemed to be illegal (drugs usually) is confiscated and you can be charged with this.

Another search is an inventory search incident to impound. If the officer is justified in impounding your vehicle then the officer will conduct an inventory search of the vehicle. This search is to identify and document the property in the vehicle. The reason for this is because a state approved private tow company is coming to pick up your vehicle and take it to their yard. There it will sit until you are able to go and get the vehicle. The inventory search allows the officer to search the entire vehicle including locked glove boxes and the trunk. . Again, anything found during this search which is deemed to be illegal (drugs usually) is confiscated and you can be charged with this.

Conclusion

So as you can see there are no easy answers as to whether an officer can search your vehicle. Suffice it to say that if the officer wants to search the vehicle he better be able to articulate that he has enough probable cause to search.

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