It is common for people accused of drug crimes or even weapon offenses to face charges because of something that happened during a traffic stop. Issues during the conversation with the police officer may lead to a search of a vehicle and then criminal accusations against the owner or driver, even if they didn’t know about something that the officers found in the backseat of the vehicle.
The truth is that you don’t really know what the cops could find if they go over your vehicle as carefully as possible. Recognizing that you don’t have to let them search your vehicle in every situation could help you avoid unnecessary and unfounded criminal accusations. When do police officers have the right to search your car during a traffic stop?
When they have probable cause
For a police officer to search your vehicle during a basic roadside traffic stop to look for drugs weapons or other evidence, they typically have to have probable cause. Probable cause is a legal term for a quantifiable suspicion related to potential criminal activity.
An officer can’t just have a feeling and claim that they had probable cause to search your vehicle. They need to see, hear or smell something that would convince a judge or jury that criminal activity had likely occurred. Police officers will often ask incriminating questions and glance through your windows in an attempt to uncover something that will serve as probable cause to search your vehicle.
When they have your permission
Even during the most basic and routine of traffic stops, officers sometimes casually ask if they can search the vehicle. The driver, wanting to be cooperative, is quick to give permission.
However, officers might then keep them on the side of the road for quite some time and could eventually bring charges against them. For many drivers caught up in roadside law enforcement efforts, remembering the right to refuse a search could help them get on their way without any serious disruptions to their day or their life.
When they have a warrant
In unusual scenarios in which police officers believe that a vehicle could play a role in a broader criminal investigation, they can present their case to a judge and potentially secure a warrant. Officers will often take these steps when they have a vehicle impounded after arresting someone.
Understanding when and why officers can search your vehicle could help you prepare a more effective response to pending criminal charges.