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When can police officers lawfully search a driver’s vehicle?

On Behalf of | May 31, 2024 | Criminal Defense

When a driver sees the flashing blue and red lights of a police cruiser in their rearview mirror, they usually expect to receive a ticket. However, police officers can sometimes arrest those that they suspect of more serious driving infractions.

Oftentimes, a police officer needs more than just what they witnessed on the road to justify arresting someone. Searching a vehicle could help and a police officer find what they need to justify arresting a motorist. Drivers typically need to understand their rights if they want to avoid scenarios in which they end up facing criminal charges because they are too accommodating of a police officer.

When is it legal for an officer to search someone’s vehicle?

When they have a warrant

The most formal search process occurs when police officers have investigated criminal activity and found strong indications that there could be evidence of a crime in someone’s vehicle. A search warrant signed by a judge can lead to the state impounding a vehicle to conduct a thorough search of everything from the carpeting to the deepest recesses of the trunk. A warrant is typically not an option an officer relies on if they want to search during a traffic stop.

When they have probable cause

Police officers can search without a warrant when they have a credible and compelling reason to suspect criminal activity. Probable cause is more than just a general hunch. It is an articulable suspicion of a specific criminal offense. Certain smells or items viewed through the windows of the car could give a police officer the probable cause required under the law to search without a warrant.

When they obtain a driver’s permission

Many roadside vehicle searches occur not because an officer has a legal justification but rather because they secured consent from the motorist. Many drivers don’t understand their rights and may agree when an officer casually asks to look through their vehicle. They could then be at risk of arrest if an officer finds a knife dropped by a previous occupant or traces of drugs that the driver didn’t even know were there.

Motorists who understand the limited scenarios in which police officers can search through their vehicles can potentially protect themselves by declining a requested search or challenging the legality of a search after their arrest as part of a criminal defense strategy. Remaining calm but assertive during an encounter with a police officer can potentially protect people from arrest and prosecution after a traffic stop.

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