Every American citizen has inalienable rights and Constitutional Rights. The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects American citizens from unlawful searches and seizures. However, the police have a duty to protect the public and investigate criminal activity. In some situations, the police may have the authority to search a driver’s car. However, the police must establish clear reasonable cause before conducting a search of a driver’s vehicle.
The police will need a search warrant signed by a judge to search an individual’s home or place of business. However, they only need probable cause to search a suspect’s vehicle. This means the officer must cite specific circumstantial evidence to conduct a lawful search of a suspect’s car.
When Can the Police Legally Search a Vehicle?
Generally, a police officer may only search a vehicle if the officer can see clear signs of illegal activity in and around the vehicle. Consider a few examples.
- A police officer on patrol sees a driver throw something out of the window. The police officer stops and discovers it was a marijuana cigarette. This could constitute probable cause for the officer to stop the driver for driving under the influence and search the vehicle for signs of more illegal drugs or other criminal activity.
- A police officer stops a driver for swerving and erratic driving and notices drug paraphernalia on the passenger seat. This would count as probable cause to search the vehicle and the officer would likely conduct an arrest.
- A police officer may conduct a search of a vehicle if the driver verbally consents to the search. For example, an officer may offhandedly ask “you don’t mind if I look around in your vehicle, do you?” This is generally an attempt to convince the driver to allow a search.
The Fourth Amendment allows a driver to refuse to consent to a search, but it does not require the police to inform an individual of his or her right to refuse.
Best Practices for Handling a Police Stop
Unfortunately, many police officers may abuse their authority to attempt to conduct improper or even illegal searches, hoping to catch drivers in illegal acts without establishing probable cause by exploiting loopholes in the legal system. All drivers should expect to be pulled over at some point in the future, and it is wise to know a few best practices for handling interactions with police officers.
- Remain calm and polite: You may become frustrated with the police, especially if you have done nothing wrong, and your emotions could lead to unintentionally jeopardizing your legal position. Getting hostile with a police officer, even one who has clearly failed to establish reasonable cause for stopping you and requesting a search of your vehicle, is a very bad idea.
- Refuse the search: Simply tell the officer politely that you do not consent to the search of your vehicle if the officer requests a search. Tell the officer you understand he or she is just doing his or her job but you do not consent to searches. Remember, this may not prevent the officer from searching you anyway, but it is vital to have a firm record of your refusal.
- Take advantage of your right to remain silent: The police may need to read you your Miranda rights upon arresting you, but they have no obligation to tell you your rights while fishing for probable cause. You have the right to remain silent, and since anything you say can and will be held against you in court, your best option is often to remain silent. You may tell the officer, “I choose to remain silent” as a valid response.
- Ask if you are free to go: If a police officer has conducted a traffic stop without probable cause or a clear moving violation, the police officer must allow you to leave or arrest you for a specific offense. Ask the officer “Am I being detained or am I free to go?” If the officer states you are being detained, inform the officer you are remaining silent and wish to speak with a lawyer. Otherwise, the officer will need to let you go, and you should do so immediately and slowly.
The Fourth Amendment exists to protect Americans against unlawful searches and seizures, but some police officers may attempt to use most Americans’ ignorance of their rights against them and conduct illegal searches. If you have recently experienced an unlawful search or unjust arrest, speak with a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.