If you have ever been pulled over by an officer, you know how intimidating the experience can be. Unfortunately, too often police use their position of authority to overstep their legal bounds, including using claims of minor traffic violations as a pretext to force unlawful searches.
Just as an officer needs a warrant to search your home, he or she needs probable cause to believe you have committed a crime to search your vehicle without your consent.
When can the police search your car?
A minor traffic violation, like a broken taillight or expired registration, is not in itself justification for a search.
According to the Fourth Amendment, officers need to have good reason to believe there is evidence of criminal activity inside their vehicle to perform a search. For instance, police may have probable cause if drug paraphernalia is clearly visible from outside the car, or if you admit to having illegal items in your possession.
Police may also perform a search if they believe, with good reason, that you are carrying a firearm or otherwise pose an immediate safety risk.
What if an officer asks to search your vehicle?
If the police had probable cause to perform a search, they would not need your consent. If an officer asks to search your vehicle, you have the right to politely refuse. If officers proceed with the search anyway, keep in mind that the search may not be lawful.
Your Fourth Amendment rights matter. If officers arrested you after performing an illegal search, know the evidence seized may not be admissible in court.