When is It Legal for Police to Search Your Car?

policecarlightsIt is absolutely terrifying when you see sirens flash in your rearview. You may instantly feel on edge, even when you’ve done nothing wrong. You may have horrifying ideas of getting yanked out of your car, getting frisked and watching as police search your vehicle. This may be an exaggerated idea, but it does bring into question what your rights are during a traffic stop.

While you do have fewer rights against searches of your car than you would if police wanted to search your home, you are not entirely unprotected. First off, police can never pull you over without probable cause. This means police can’t just pull you over and randomly look for drugs in your car. You need to be suspected of breaking a law prior to getting pulled over.

Now, say you were speeding and you get pulled over for this traffic violation; police do not necessarily need a warrant to search your vehicle, like they would your home. What they need is probable cause. Probable cause means a police officer will need some evidence and facts that leads him or her to believe you are involved in criminal activity. They must witness or observe something real. A common example is the smell of marijuana or seeing something criminal in plain view, such as an open container of alcohol. To be clear, a traffic violation is not probable cause to search a vehicle.

However, there are scenarios that allow police to search your vehicle without your permission. A police officer can arrest you with probable cause, then proceed to search your vehicle legally. This would likely occur with a DWI arrest and is called “search incident to arrest.” Additionally, a police officer can search your car if they have probable cause to suspect a crime. For example, it’s not necessarily illegal to have blood on your seats, a black eye and a baseball bat in your backseat. But if you did, an officer would have probable cause to search your vehicle.

What to Do If a Police Officer Asks to Search Your Car

If you are pulled over and asked to step out of your vehicle, you must comply. However, this does not mean you need to submit to a search. To be specific, the Fourth Amendment protects your right to refuse a search, but it does not require police to explain this right. If you consent or are tricked into consenting to a search, this makes the search legal.

Instead, remain polite. Simply ask the officer if you are being detained. If not, ask the officer if you are free to go. Remember, unless you are being detained, you can terminate the encounter at any point. If you refuse to consent to a search and the officer implies you have something to hide, simply remind the officer you do not consent and ask if you are free to go.

If you are not free to go and are arrested, tell the officer that you will remain silent and ask to see a lawyer who can determine if the arrest and subsequent search of your vehicle was legal.

Mike Goolsby is a Dallas criminal defense attorney that can help you if you are accused of any crime. We also provide help in the McKinney, Arlington, Plano and Forth Worth areas of Texas.