Q: If I am pulled over for a minor traffic violation, do I have to let a police officer search my car if he asks? What are my rights?
A: It sounds like such a simple question, but the answer goes beyond a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ The short answer is, ‘it depends.’ When you are pulled over for a minor traffic violation, and an officer asks you if he can search your car, you do have the right to refuse the officer access to your car unless the officer already has probable cause. So what does “probable cause” mean?
Probable cause means that a police officer has a reasonable belief that a person committed a crime. The keyword here is REASONABLE and there are a lot of different factors that go into determining whether a suspicion or belief is reasonable or not.
For example, a traffic violation alone is not probable cause to believe the driver has committed a crime. Just because you were speeding, had a broken taillight, or didn’t come to a complete stop at a stop sign does not mean that you probably committed a more serious offense. An officer is only able to investigate you regarding the traffic violation he pulled you over for.
In order for an officer to continue to detain you and ask you more questions, he must first have a reasonable suspicion that you are committing a crime, and in order for him to lawfully search your car, he needs probable cause.
If an officer pulls you over for speeding and he smells an odor of marijuana as he approaches your car, he will have probable cause to search your car for drugs. You won’t be allowed to refuse the officer access to your vehicle. However, if an officer pulls you over for speeding, asks you questions about why you were speeding, and then asks to search your car without having probable cause, you are allowed to say no. It’s important to remember that the officer is the one who determines whether or not he has probable cause; not you. If he tells you he smells an odor of marijuana, he has probable cause to search your car, and you cannot say no.
Never consent to a police officer searching your car if you have the option to refuse. Know your rights! If you feel like a police officer performed an illegal search of your vehicle and you are facing criminal charges, please call The DWI Dudes Attorney Sean R. Simpson & David P. Lamb to speak to an experienced attorney about your situation.