Do I Have to Let a Police Officer Search My Car?

Everyone in the United States has certain legal rights that protect them from unlawful searches and seizures. Although these laws are in place, they can be difficult to understand and it can become hazy for those who are not sure if they have to let a police officer search their vehicle.

In short, law enforcement can search your car. Unlike searches of your home, they do not need a warrant to investigate your vehicle when you have been stopped for a traffic violation or under suspicion of a criminal offense. While police can search your car, they must do in accordance to the law, otherwise they risk violating your constitutional rights – something that can result in evidence being inadmissible and a case being thrown out.

At Lessem, Newstat & Tooson, LLP, our Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys have extensive experience representing clients who were charged with a wide range of crimes after their vehicles were searched by law enforcement during a traffic stop. Because we commonly receive questions from clients about when and how police are allowed to search vehicles, and because a vehicle search can impact the trajectory of a criminal case, we have put together a few key points to help you better understand your rights and the law.

  • Probable Cause – Law enforcement must have probable cause in order to search your car. Probable cause is defined as a reasonable grounds for suspecting that a crime might be involved or that there are illegal items in a vehicle, provided that the vehicle is in a public place or you were stopped while traveling on public roads.
  • Unlawful Search & Seizure – The Fourth Amendment protects you from unlawful searches and seizures, which means law enforcement must be able to prove they have probable cause to conduct a search. If they do not have probable cause, you are protected by the Fourth Amendment, and any evidence found as the result of an unjustifiable search can be thrown out.
  • You Do Not Have to Consent – You do not have to consent to a search of your vehicle. By not letting a police officer search your car, it becomes their burden to prove that they had probable cause to do so. Remember police can search your car without a warrant, so refusing simply provides you with protections in the event that a cop decides to search your car anyway. It can also potentially result in police not searching your vehicle because they know they do not have a valid basis to do so.

Interactions with law enforcement can be a frightening experience for many people, and police will often use this to their advantage by asking if they can search your car. You can politely inform officers that you do not consent to a search. If they have probable cause, they may do so anyway. However, you should always use common sense when speaking to law enforcement in order to avoid any criminal charges.

If you or someone you love has been arrested as a result of a vehicle search – whether for a drug crime, possession of a firearm, or any other criminal offense – Lessem, Newstat & Tooson, LLP is available 24/7 to help protect your rights! Contact our award-winning lawyers today to get more details about your case, potential defense, and how our firm may be able to help.