Recently on our DUI forum a user asked, “If I was pulled over for a traffic stop and the police officer searched my car. Did I have the right say no? I wasn’t doing anything wrong, but I felt like I didn’t have a choice.”
United States citizens seem to be more and more willing to forfeit their personal rights at the whims of the state and federal governments. Regardless of whether or not you have done anything wrong, under the United State constitution, you are protected from unlawful searches and seizures. This includes unlawful searches of your person, home, and car.
It’s important to note, however, that the U.S. Supreme Court, while still recognizing your right to unlawful searches, has decided that your car may not have as many protections as your home. Although laws can change, right now, car searches are allowed under the following conditions without a search warrant:
- If the driver is arrested and the police are taking an inventory of the car after impoundment
- The police may search certain areas of the car where the driver could reach if the driver is unsecured and could potentially reach for a weapon
- If the police have probable cause to search the car or pat down the driver.
It’s also important to note that in some cases the right to search may be expanded based on the circumstances of the arrest. For example, if a police officer had reason to suspect that there were weapons or drugs in the car (for a drug arrest) and the police officer is outnumbered and believes there is a risk.
So what do you do after a police stops your car?
The most important way to protect yourself during a police stop is to understand your rights. First, you do not have to consent to a search just because an officer asks you to. Consider, if you consent to the search, all evidence that is found can generally be used against you.
Next, understand that anything illegal which the officer finds in plain sight can give the officer probable cause to conduct a more invasive search.
Additionally, officers can also search your car if they have probable cause. As mentioned above, probable cause can be established if they see something which they believe may be illegal, but it can also include an admission of criminal activity on your part.
Probable cause for a search, however, is generally not established by a driving infraction, such as speeding or a broken tail light, but as mentioned above, during the traffic stop if the officer sees something in your car, smells marijuana, or if you say something incriminating, he may have probable cause for a search.
So what do you do if you are stopped? Stay calm and be polite. Although you do not have to allow a search, there is never any reason to raise your voice or be disrespectful.
Just remember: you have the legal right to refuse a request to search your car. A refusal in no way is an admission of guilt; it is simply as assertion of your rights as outlined in the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
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