When Can Police Search Your Car?

You can get pulled over for speeding or a broken tail light and end up facing drug charges if police find drugs in your vehicle. But is it fair for police to search your car when drugs aren't the reason they pulled you over in the first place?

If you get pulled over by the police, it's important to understand your rights about when they can and cannot search your car. Just because a person is wearing a badge doesn't mean they have free reign to go through your car. The Fourth Amendment protects citizens against unlawful search and seizure, but that protection isn't quite as strict for people in cars as it is for people in their homes.

When police can search your car

You gave permission. If police ask to search your car and you say yes, you're out of luck, and you waive your Fourth Amendment rights. If you give permission to the police to search your car, they can do so regardless of whether they had a valid reason to ask. 

The officer has a search warrant. Generally this won't apply in most traffic stop situations, because a judge must issue a search warrant based on probable cause. If an officer asks if he or she can search your car, ask if they have a warrant.

You get arrested. If you get arrested for DUI, for example, the police may search your car for open containers of alcohol or other evidence related to the arrest.

Evidence is in plain sight. If you have drugs or open containers of alcohol sitting in the front seat, the officer would be able to see this when making the traffic stop, and would have probable cause to search your car. 

Safety or evidence is at risk. If the officer believes that you may have a weapon and are a potential threat, or believes that you may be about to destroy evidence, he or she can conduct a search of your car.

The bottom line

You don't have to give police consent to search your car under every circumstance. If you've been pulled over and the police officer is asking to search your car, ask if they have a search warrant. And if police arrested you and searched your car without our permission or without a warrant, it's definitely time to contact a lawyer to discuss your options for a strong defense.

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