When can police legally search my vehicle?

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives all Americans protection “against unreasonable searches and seizures.” That means law enforcement officers cannot search your property – including your vehicle - simply because they feel like it.

So, what are the rules for a police officer going through your car’s back seat, glove compartment or trunk?

Probable cause

When the Fourth Amendment was ratified in 1791, there were no cars to consider. The amendment says, in part, that law enforcement needs to obtain a warrant before searching someone’s home or property.

As the decades have passed and technology has advanced, court rulings have carved out nuances in our understanding of the amendment’s language. That includes what is known as the “automobile exception.” Established by the Supreme Court in 1925, the automobile exception says an officer does not necessarily need a warrant to search a car on the road, provided there is “probable cause” to do so.

So what counts as probable cause? An officer having a “hunch” is not enough. Nor is a minor traffic violation – a tail light being out or expired tabs, for example – sufficient. There has to be evidence of a crime.

That could include the officer spotting drugs or drug paraphernalia left in plain view, smelling an illegal substance such as marijuana, or noticing an illegal firearm.

When an officer wants to search your vehicle

If you are pulled over by a law enforcement officer, always remember to remain calm and polite while following the officer’s instructions. The officer might ask if they can look in your car. If you say yes, this is giving your consent. In that case, the officer does not need probable cause to search your vehicle.

If the officer does not have probable cause, you can decline their request. Tell them respectfully you do not consent to a search of your vehicle. If the officer asks again, even in a different fashion, you can repeat that you do not consent.

If the officer believes they have probable cause to search your vehicle, they may do so regardless.

What to do if police search your vehicle

It is always smart to get a hold of an attorney any time you have had a run-in with law enforcement. But if it came after what you believe might be an improper search of your vehicle, it is an urgent matter.

Call a lawyer, explain the situation. Note if you consented to the search or not. Try to remember everything the officer said, including why they pulled you over, and what probable cause they claimed to have to search the car.

Whether purposefully or by accident, law enforcement officers do not always follow these rules to the letter of the law. Either way, your rights in those cases may have been violated and an attorney can help set things back on the proper course while defending your Fourth Amendment rights.

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