Can the police search your car? The short answer is yes. The police do not need a valid search warrant to search your car during a traffic stop. People in cars have a lower expectation of privacy than in their homes. The United States Supreme Court has ruled that because cars are mobile, there is an opportunity to transport contraband and weapons or use it to commit crimes.
A car search must be based on probable cause. Probable cause is defined in the law as a reasonable belief that a person has committed a crime. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. This means that police officers cannot conduct an unlawful and unjustifiable search of a vehicle. If they do, they not only violate a citizen’s Constitutional rights, but any evidence obtained from the search must be tossed out and cannot be used against the suspect.
There are several circumstances when a police officer can search your car without a warrant:
- You gave the officer voluntary consent to search your car;
- The officer has a probable cause (reasonable belief) to believe your car contains evidence of a crime as long as the car is in a public place or at a vehicle stop;
- You have been lawfully arrested and your vehicle is being searched incident to your arrest. Police may search the car when they believe evidence relevant to the crime for which he/she was arrested might be found in the vehicle;
- You have been lawfully detained (not arrested) and the officer may conduct a limited search for their own safety and protection (example: a gun or hidden weapon);
- When your car was lawfully impounded the officers may conduct an inventory search of the car and the search is conducted under standardized policy procedures. This search is not part of the criminal investigation but rather they are carried out to protect the owner's property.
Should I Give The Police Consent To Search My Car?
Know your rights and use common sense when stopped by the police. Here are some reasons why you should not give police consent to search your car:
- First, you have a Constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches & seizures. Unless police have a search warrant or probable cause to believe that evidence of a crime will be found in your car, they need your consent to search your car. You have the right to refuse a search of your car unless you are at a border checkpoint, DUI stop, or entering a secure facility like an airport or military base. Don't be timid about asserting your rights when police are looking for evidence that could land you in jail.
- Refusing a search of your car acts as an insurance policy if you are charged and prosecuted. If something illegal is found in your car, the officer must prove in court there was probable cause to conduct the search.
- There is always the possibility the police can find something. Are you absolutely sure there is nothing illegal in your car? Maybe a friend of yours left a marijuana pipe, prescription drugs, or a baggie under the passenger seat. Telling the police officer that none of those items are yours will absolutely do nothing for you except get you arrested and taken to the local jail. Then you can bail out and hire an attorney to fight your case.
Most people are not accustomed to dealing with the police. They get nervous, anxious, and act in a very submissive manner because they fear something bad will happen if they disagree with the police officer who insists on searching the car. Be calm and firmly tell the officer you do not consent to the search. If the officer forcefully demands you comply, you must use common sense and decide if you will refuse or comply in order to avoid a resisting arrest charge.
Our Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorneys Can Help
If the police pull you over and ask to search your car, it's probably because they suspect you are carrying a gun, drugs, or some type of contraband. The police are not there to be your friends – they are doing their job and that is to arrest bad guys. It is critical that you not give your consent if or if you're not carrying anything in your car. As experienced Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys, we can vigorously challenge the prosecutor's case on the basis that there was no probable cause to search your car if and only if you don't consent to the search. Most people don't grasp that point. The consent to search the car makes the search completely legal and makes the prosecutor's case a slam dunk.
If you have been accused of a crime and feel you have had your rights violated by an unlawful search and seizure of your vehicle, contact a Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer at Stephen G. Rodriguez & Partners. An attorney at our firm is prepared to investigate your case further to determine whether the police were justified in searching your car. If the officer made any procedural error, we will work to have the evidence they uncovered suppressed and dismissed and have the charges against you dropped.