Hearing sirens behind your vehicle can be both frustrating and terrifying. Even if you know you did not do anything wrong, you may worry that if the police search your car, an officer will find something you did not intend in your car—like something illegal that unbeknownst to you a friend or passenger left behind in the back seat.
While police do not always need a warrant to search your vehicle, there are rules that officers must follow if they want to perform a search. It is critical to understand when police can search your car and that even if the law permits a search over your objection, you always have the right to say “No.”
This is what you should know about police searches and when they can look through your vehicle.
You don’t have to say yes
Police officers realize that when they talk to someone they have pulled over, they are more likely to get an affirmative response to a search if they use a leading question. They may make it sound like agreeing to a search is really not a choice (“We’re going to need to search your car, with your consent, okay?”).
Alternatively, they may claim that things will be worse if you disagree (“If you’ve got something, we’re going to find it, so you may as well let us do it and save yourself some time.”). They may state that objecting will create a hassle that will be counted against you (“Do you really want the judge to hear that you made all of us wait 30 minutes for a K9 unit rather than just take responsibility?”).
The truth is that the law prohibits the exercise of a constitutional right like the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures from being used as evidence against you.
If an officer asks to search your vehicle, you can and should say no. Keep in mind, if you agree to let an officer search your car, they no longer need probable cause or a warrant because they have permission from you. If the police have a valid reason to search the car, they can do so without your permission. If they don’t, then there is no reason to let them perform a search.
When do officers need a warrant?
The police can always search your car if they have a warrant signed by a judge, permitting them to search your vehicle. But most car searches are performed long before the police obtain a warrant, under an exception to the warrant requirement.
Exceptions to the warrant requirement are complicated and very fact-specific. Rather than trying to guess as to whether the legal standard has been satisfied, it is always best to say “No” and avoid any risk of acquiescing to an illegal search.
Generally speaking, police can search your car without a warrant or your consent in the following situations:
- Incriminating evidence in plain view: If an officer pulls you over and can see evidence of a crime in your car without entering the car, they have probable cause to search the car.
- Search incident to arrest: In some circumstances, the police may search the area of your car within your reach before arrest if you are arrested after being stopped if they have reason to believe there is evidence of a crime within this area.
- Inventory search: Police may search a car that is being towed for inventory purposes, such as documenting any valuables within the car before it is held in the impound lot, although the law prohibits this being used as an excuse to search for other evidence- but doesn’t’ require the police to turn a blind eye to evidence that does show up.
- Evidence of commission of a crime: If the police have reason to believe you were or currently are involved in a crime, it may be enough to give them probable cause to search your car without a warrant.
- Officer safety: In some circumstances, the police may search your car for weapons if they reasonably believe that it is necessary for their own protection.
No matter the circumstances, the best answer is always to say “No” because when you agree to a search, the police no longer need a warrant or an exception to the warrant requirement.