Most people have been pulled over by the police at least once in their lives. In many cases, a traffic stop simply ends with a warning or a citation–but in some situations, a traffic stop could very well lead to an arrest. Regardless of whether you believe you’ve done anything wrong or not, there are some basic things you’ll want to keep in mind when you’ll pulled over by the police. For example, many people wonder, “when can the police search my car?”
A Note About Traffic Stops
First of all, understand that traffic stops are the single most dangerous aspect of any police officer’s job. More police officers are injured and killed during traffic stops than in any other call, so it’s important that you take steps to show the officer that you’re not a threat.
Upon realizing you’re being pulled over, turn on your hazard lights and pull off to the side of the road immediately. If it’s dark out, turn on your vehicle dome light so the officer can see who’s in the car. Then, wait for the officer to approach before reaching for your driver’s license, registration, or anything else. Making sudden movements could lead the officer to believe you’re a threat.
Warrants Versus Probable Cause
It’s also helpful here to understand the difference between a search warrant and having probable cause. Contrary to what many misinformed citizens believe, a police officer doesn’t need a search warrant to search your car; this only applies to stationary property (such as your house).
Instead, an officer only needs probable cause to search your car. In other words, if the officer has even a small amount of evidence (not just a hunch) that you’ve committed a crime, he or she is legally allowed to conduct the search.
What Constitutes Probable Cause in a Traffic Stop?
During a traffic stop, there are numerous things that could constitute probable cause. If the officer smells alcohol coming from your vehicle, he or she may have probable cause to suspect that you’re drinking while driving, just the same as the smell of marijuana coming from the car may give an officer probable cause to believe you’ve been using illegal substances.
Verbally Refusing Your Consent to Search
If an officer has probable cause to search your vehicle, you’ll likely still be asked for your consent. You have every right to refuse consent for any reason, but keep in mind that this won’t stop the officer from searching the car if he or she has probable cause.
Unfortunately, even in situations where an officer doesn’t have probable cause, many unsuspecting drivers are led to believe they have no choice but to consent to the search. Instead of asking for consent to search, the officers might say something along the lines of, “if you haven’t done anything wrong, then you won’t mind if we search your vehicle, right?”
Exercising Your Right to Remain Silent
If an officer searches your vehicle, regardless of whether you have something to hide or not, remember that you can exercise your right to remain silent under the Fifth Amendment. In fact, it’s recommended that you elect not to answer any questions (especially if you’re being detained) and that you request a lawyer before speaking to police officers. After all, anything you say can and will be used against you.
Getting pulled over and asked for consent to search your car can be an intimidating and unsettling experience for anybody. If you’re in need of legal guidance following a traffic stop, feel free to contact us today. Our team would be happy to assist you.