During a traffic stop, you cannot rely on a police officer to provide accurate information about your legal rights. Police officers sometimes will try to search a vehicle even when they do not have a legal basis to demand access to the interior during a traffic stop. When is it legal for an officer to search your vehicle?
After an arrest or with a warrant
If an officer arrests someone as part of a traffic stop, they might then have reason to search the vehicle for evidence related to the alleged crime. If they arrest a driver for the possession of drugs or driving under the influence, they might search the vehicle for open containers of alcohol or other evidence of drugs. Officers can also search a vehicle if they have a warrant related to an investigation into criminal activity.
When police have probable cause
One of the most common reasons for officers to search a vehicle without a warrant is the claim that they have probable cause for the search. If the officer believes the people in the vehicle have broken the law or are in the act of doing so, they can search the vehicle, but they will need to validate their grounds for probable cause in the report they file.
When police fear for their safety
If a driver threatens the police officer or otherwise makes a law enforcement agent believe that their safety is at risk, the officer could potentially search the vehicle for weapons.
When a driver gives permission
All too often, the reason police officers search someone’s vehicle is the driver gave them permission. You might think you have nothing to hide, but you never know what former owners or previous occupants of your vehicle may have left behind. Any number of items might implicate you and result in an arrest and possibly criminal charges.
Unlawful searches could have an impact on your criminal defense strategy, and knowing your rights about the police searching your vehicle could help you advocate for yourself.