While police generally need a warrant to search you or your property, when it comes to searching your vehicle, they only need probable cause. In other words, an officer’s hunch without evidence of illegal activity is not enough to legally search your car. Examples of probable cause may include the sight or smell of contraband in plain view or plain smell, or an admission of guilt for a specific crime. Minor traffic violations are not considered probable cause.
Can I keep police from searching my car?
Yes and No. It depends of the situation and how you handle it. An officer may try to exploit a major loophole to the probable cause search requirement by gaining your consent. If you give the officer your consent, he can search your car even without probable cause.
You Have the Right to Refuse Search Requests
If the police request that your step out of the vehicle, do so calmly and slowly. If they have reasonable suspicion to detain you, police may frisk the outside of your clothing to check for weapons, but only if they have bases for suspecting you’re armed.
If police detain and frisk you, you have the right to clearly state your refusal to consent to the search. You may say “Officer, I’m not resisting. I do not consent to this search”. But you should only verbally refuse. Never physically resist. Touching an officer may be enough to get you a felony charge for assaulting an officer.
The police may ask you a series of questions. Be aware that questions such as “You don’t mind if I have a look in your car?” are an attempt to circumvent the probable cause requirement. While it might sound like a command, it’s technically a request.
Your are completely within your rights to respond with “Officer, I know you’re just doing your job, but I don’t consent to searches.” Don’t fall for tricks like “What do you have to hide?” If necessary, repeat your refusal.
The 4th Amendment protects your right to refuse a search, but the police are not required to inform you of your right to refuse. Consenting to a search automatically makes it legal in the eyes of the law. So if you’re pulled over, don’t try to figure out whether or not the officer has probable cause to legally search you. You always have the right to refuse searches.
Refusing a search request is not an admission of guilt and does not give the officer the legal right to search or detain you. In fact, most avoidable police searches don’t occur because police have probable cause. They occur because people get tricked or intimidated into consenting to search requests.
If police search your car and find illegal items despite your refusal, your lawyer can file a
motion to throw out the evidence . If the judge agrees that the officer’s search violated the 4th Amendment’s probable cause requirements, she’ll grant the motion. Without further evidence , your charges would be dismissed.
Determine if You’re Free to Go
Unless you’re detained or arrested, you may leave the scene at any time. You do not need to wait for the officer to dismiss you. You are within your rights to ask if you’re free to go.
For example, if an officer threatens to call in a K-9 unit if you refuse a search, you should ask“Officer, are you detaining me, or am I free to go?”
This line can help withdraw you from an encounter, it also deflects any of the officer’s probing questions or threats. So if an officer says “If you cooperate with me, everything will go easy for you.” You may respond by saying either “Officer, I don’t consent to any searches” or “Officer, am I free to go?”
If the officer lets you leave, do so immediately. If the officer’s answer is unclear, or if he asks additional questions, persist by repeating “Officer, am I free to go?”
Ask for a Lawyer
If you are being detained or arrested, simply state “I’m going to remain silent. I would like to see a lawyer” and say not more. These magic words are like a legal condom. They’re your best protection if you’re under arrest.
Never rely on police to inform you of your right to remain silent and see a lawyer. Repeat the magic words as necessary, but say no more. Remember that anything you say can and will be used against you in court.
Above all, remain calm!