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When can the police search a car during a traffic stop?

On Behalf of | Nov 9, 2022 | Criminal Defense

Many traffic stops result in an officer writing of citation because there was a violation of traffic laws that occurred. Occasionally, officers determine that there is no need to issue a ticket and let a driver go on their way with a warning or an apology if the officer made a mistake.

In some cases, the person driving the vehicle or one of their passengers may wind up in the back of the police cruiser at the end of the interaction. People could get arrested for how they talk to the officer or what they did before driving. However, many arrests relate to items in the vehicle.

When an officer searches a vehicle, they could find something that gives them grounds to arrest you or someone riding with you. When does an officer have a right to search the vehicle?

When they have probable cause

Police officers have to respect your privacy unless they have reason to suspect that you committed a crime or that there is a crime in progress. Probable cause is a legal term for the reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

There has to be more than just a feeling. An officer needs to see, hear or smell something that indicates some kind of crime has occurred. Smelling illegal drugs or alcohol on someone’s breath could be probable cause, as could spotting something that looks like an unsecured weapon in the backseat of a vehicle as the officer approaches. If they don’t have probable cause, when can the officer still search your vehicle?

When you give them permission

A surprising number of people voluntarily give up their own rights and protections during an interaction with law enforcement professionals. A police officer will casually ask if they can look through the vehicle, and the driver will automatically agree. They believe their cooperation will speed up the internet and reduce their risk of getting arrested.

However, officers often find things people don’t even know are in their vehicles. If you have had other people in your vehicle, you never know for sure what a police officer might find. If they don’t have your permission and they don’t have probable cause, then an officer will only be able to search your vehicle if they go to a judge and get a warrant, possibly after arresting you.

If you understand when an officer has the right to search your vehicle, it will be easier for you to stand up for yourself during a stressful traffic stop. Learning your rights helps reduce your risk of unfairly facing criminal charges.