You’re driving down the road; you glance down at the speedometer and see that you’re driving right at the speed limit. Then, you see flashing lights in your rear-view mirror. You pull over and a police officer orders you to step out of your car. The officer then asks to search your car. What should you do? Before consenting to a search, there are a few things that you should know:
- The officer has to have a reason to stop and search your car. The officer may claim that you were speeding or that you had a broken taillight or illegally tinted windows. The officer needs at least a reasonable pretext for the stop. Beyond that, an officer also needs an additional reason to search your car; a routine traffic violation isn’t sufficient to support a search. The officer must have good reason to believe that you are involved in criminal activity – that you have contraband or a concealed weapon, for example.
- Any illegal substance or object in plain view of the officer can be seized. If an officer pulls you over for speeding and sees a weapon or a baggie of an illegal drug on the seat beside you, the officer may seize it as evidence.
- Your car cannot be searched without your consent. If the officer wishes to search areas of your car like the backseat or the trunk, he or she must ask for your consent. If you give consent, then the officer doesn’t need a warrant to conduct the search. If you refuse to give consent, the officer cannot search your car. In some jurisdictions, however, you can be arrested for a minor traffic violation, and the police can impound, and search, your car.
- You can challenge an illegal search in court. If the officer searches your car without reasonable cause, or despite your refusal to consent, and finds something (an unregistered gun, for example, or a small amount of an illegal drug), that evidence may be suppressed in any subsequent court case. The exclusionary rule of the Fourth Amendment also provides that evidence obtained in an illegal search can be excluded.
If you are caught up in a traffic stop, make sure that you know your rights and your responsibilities.
Kathleen Davies is a Staff Writer for GetLegal.com. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and has practiced law and taught legal writing and advocacy.