Do I Have To Submit To A Vehicle Search During Traffic Stop?

You’re driving along when suddenly your rear-view mirror lights up with the classic red and blue lights. You’re being pulled over. Even if you don’t have anything serious to hide, you’re undoubtedly worried. The key is to remain calm and keep your rights in mind. In the event the officer requests to search your vehicle, there are some things you need to know to keep yourself protected.

Vehicular Search: Three Basic Scenarios

Every situation is different, but there are three primary scenarios in which a vehicle search will kick off. It’s important to understand the nature of each and how they impact you going forward if charges are made against you:

  • Police officer asks you if it’s okay if they search your car. You say “yes” or say nothing, which does not imply consent. If you do say “yes,” the officer is legally able to search your entire vehicle.
  • The officer is alerted to something that makes him believe you are concealing something illegal or dangerous. In this case, the officer has the right to search your vehicle since it is mobile.
  • You deny access to a search, and the police officer holds you in their patrol car while they wait for backup to bring a search warrant.

There have been numerous situations in which courts have upheld searches without warrants on vehicles, so it can work against you to openly argue with the officer. Rather, there are two alternative actions you are better off taking:

  • If you have nothing to hide, simply consent to the search. You should soon be back on your way.
  • If you know or think there could be something illegal in the vehicle, it can be in your best interest to withhold consent in case you need to build a defense later

Vehicle Search Following Impound

Maybe you aren’t even in your car when it’s searched. If your car was impounded, the police could have the right to search it. In this scenario, however, it’s required for the police to take a very detailed inventory of everything that’s found in the car during the search.

Who likes paperwork? Most of us don’t, and cops are people just like the rest of us. Unless there is serious suspicion surrounding your vehicle, usually it is unlikely the police will search it in impound.

Don’t Want Caught with It, Don’t Take it with You

Out of sight, out of mind. This stands true in many situations, and this includes interactions with law enforcement. If you choose to drive with illegal or dangerous items in your car, it’s best to keep it out of plain view. Better yet… leave it at home.

If you’re pulled over and the officer observes something suspect in your vehicle, not only can they seize the item, but you simultaneously open yourself up to the possibility of a warrantless search to see if there’s more where that came from.

There is a loophole in the plain site search situation. A search stemming from plain site observations must result in findings related to the initial item in question. For example, if a cop saw an illegal gun in your passenger seat, anything they find during the search must be weapon-related. To stay safe, don’t leave the house with anything that could be considered illegal or dangerous.

Frisk vs. Search – What’s the Difference

When you encounter law enforcement, it’s important to understand they have the right to ensure their safety. They encounter the most dangerous people in society in some of the most risky situations. Because of this, it’s within their rights to give you a pat-down over your clothing if they think you may pose a threat.

It is no longer considered a frisk if the officer manipulates things in your pockets. At this point, the interaction has become a search. Let’s take a look at an example.

Say an officer feels something that indicates the suspect has a pipe in their pocket. Due to the suspicion, they may remove it. However, if the officer were to accidentally poke into a bulge that’s not suspicious and discovers a bag of cocaine, the suspect has a viable case to present in court.

When Cops Do Not Have a Right to Search

It’s true that the police, in many situations, can search your car. However, there are scenarios in which doing so would put the odds in your favor of convincing the court to dismiss any resulting charges. Let’s examine some situations in which a vehicle search isn’t legal:

  • The initial traffic stop was unwarranted. The officer must have reasonable cause to believe you have violated the law before pulling you over.
  • It can be demonstrated that the officer had an ulterior motive to pull you over. For example, if an officer suspects someone is involved in a drug deal, they can’t follow them around and wait for them to do something wrong only to pull them over for something minor as an excuse to search the vehicle.

Avoid Putting Yourself in Risky Situations

Whether you’ve already been pulled over and had your car searched or just want to avoid finding yourself in this situation, it’s helpful to understand things you can do to prevent issues from arising.

All too often, drivers who do have something to hide allow their body language and mannerisms to catch the officer’s attention and activate suspicion. The trick is to keep your cool and maintain your composure as you implement the following tips:

  • Allow the officer a clear view of the interior without blocking their view from any areas.
  • Remain cooperative at all points of questioning.
  • Don’t give your consent to search if you have something to hide. This could be in the form of simply saying “no” or saying nothing at all. It’s in your best interest to decline consent without becoming aggravated.

Knowledge is Key

The biggest hindrance when it comes to building a solid defense is not knowing your rights at the time of the incident. It takes the skilled knowledge of an experienced defense attorney to best ensure you cover your tracks. Chances are you won’t have one in your passenger seat when you get pulled over.

With a better understanding of your rights, you have a good guideline on the do’s and don’ts of pullovers and actions you can take to either build a solid defense or prevent a vehicle search in the first place.

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Law Offices Of Marc S. Ward, LLC. provide strong legal services for Criminal Defense & Personal Injury cases.

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