Do I Have to Let the Police Search My Car?
While there are a few cases where the police can search your car without your permission, you do not have to let them search your car if they ask. Just remember that the police aren’t going to tell you this themselves when they ask. They may even purposefully give you the impression that you don’t have a choice.
If the police ask to search your car, tell them that you do not consent and then stay quiet. Many officers now wear body cameras, so be polite but clear. They may ask about what you have in the car, but you don’t have to answer. They may be looking for any excuse to justify a search, so giving them as little information as possible is essential.
If you give your consent to have your vehicle searched, then that is a legal search. It is also legal for the police to search your vehicle if they have probable cause, more on that in a moment. Additionally, if you are arrested at a traffic stop, then they may be able to legally search your vehicle. For example, if you were arrested for burglary, they may search the vehicle for stolen goods or illegal tools. Your car may also be searched if you are arrested for a DUI, though this is intended to make an inventory of your items when the car was impounded in order to return them to you.
What is Probable Cause?
Probable cause is a bit of a tricky term. In a legal sense, it is pretty straightforward. The basic idea is that the police should be allowed to act on the scene on the side of the road when they have a probable cause to believe the vehicle contains contraband because taking the time to obtain a search warrant is not feasible, and you can drive the car away. For example, If they saw bags of cocaine in plain view when they approach the vehicle, they would be able to retrieve the suspected cocaine from inside the vehicle.
Probable cause isn’t just visual. If they smell alcohol, they may use this to justify a search; especially if they believe it related to illegal transportation of alcohol. They used to be able to justify searching your vehicle when they smelled marijuana, but this changed in 2021 and now they cannot search based solely on the smell of marijuana..
The most important thing to remember about probable cause is that the more you say to the police, the higher the chances you may say something they can use to help them establish probable cause to search your vehicle. And what you say may be used against you in court.
Shouldn’t I Just Show Them I Have Nothing to Hide?
If you are just your average, law-abiding citizen, then you may be wondering why you should stay quiet. Wouldn’t it make more sense just to tell the police what they want to know, let them take a look through the vehicle, and be done with it?
In a perfect world, that would be perfectly fine. The problem is that we live in a world where police corruption is an issue and where even honest officers can make mistakes.
It is always better to keep your interactions with the police to a minimum and it is best to have an attorney present when you speak with them. That way, you can be sure that your rights are protected.
What Do I Do If My Car Was Illegally Searched?
You are legally allowed to refuse when the police ask to search your vehicle, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to listen. They may decide that they can legally search your car without your permission, and there can be little that you can do about it at that moment.
However, if the police illegally searched your car, and you can show this, then you can prevent them from using anything they found in the search as part of your criminal trial. Say they illegally searched your car and found some illegal substances; they could not present those substances as evidence in court because the search was illegal. The charges are based entirely on that evidence, so the case may be thrown out entirely. Keep in mind, however, that this isn’t as easy as it sounds.
It is important to note that none of this applies if you consent to have your car searched. Even if the police misled you and you wrongfully believed that you had no choice but to allow the search, the fact that you gave your consent would prevent you from claiming your vehicle was searched illegally.
Should I Contact an Attorney if My Car Was Searched Illegally?
If you are the victim of an illegal search and you are facing charges as a result, then you need to reach out to an attorney immediately. You must share as much information as possible about the vehicle search with your attorney so they can build a solid defense and gather the necessary evidence to show that you were a victim of an illegal search whose charges should be thrown out.