Police Vehicle Search

The Right To Refuse A Vehicle Search What to do when a police officer wants to search your car

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prevents illegal searches and seizures including unreasonable vehicle searches by police. This means if you are pulled over and a police officer wants to search your car without a warrant, you do not have to consent.

You Have the Right to Refuse a Vehicle Search and Remain Silent

The vast majority of vehicle searches occur because the driver feels pressured and intimidated and gives permission, at which point the search becomes legal. Police may say things like, “You don’t mind if I search your car, right?” or “What do you have to hide?” in order to get you to consent to them searching your vehicle, but remember, you have the right to refuse search requests (unless the officer can use one of the reasons below). Refusing a search request is not an admission of guilt and does not give the officer the legal right to search or detain you. You can decline by politely saying, “Officer, I know you’re just doing your job, but I don’t consent to searches” and repeating, “I do not consent to any searches” if necessary.

An officer may also try to get you to admit you broke a law by questioning you. Your best line of action is to stay calm and invoke your Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, especially on Maui where officers are not equipped with recording devices, records are made using the officer’s memory, and your exact words can be misinterpreted. Anything you say can be used against you in court, but pleading the Fifth cannot be used against you.

Ask If You Are Free to Go

Pulling a vehicle over on reasonable suspicion that the driver committed a traffic offense is legal, but an officer cannot detain you indefinitely. There is no set time limit for what is considered a reasonable detention period, but police will often detain drivers while they check IDs and license plates. If it has been about 30 minutes since you were stopped, do not wait for the officer to dismiss you. Start asking if you are free to go. Again, remain calm and ask, “Am I being arrested or am I free to go?”

Ask for a Lawyer

If you are arrested, do not depend on police to inform you of your rights. Say, “I’m going to remain silent. I would like to see a lawyer.”

If police perform a vehicle search without your permission, continue to remain silent. Evidence discovered by an illegal search and seizure is generally inadmissible in court under what is known as the “exclusionary rule.” Your lawyer can file a motion to suppress, or throw out, the evidence in court.

When Can Police Search your Vehicle?

Police can search your vehicle under the following circumstances:

– You have given the officer consent.
– The officer has probable cause to believe there is evidence of a crime in your vehicle. (For example, they see contraband in plain view.)
– The officer reasonably believes a search is necessary for their own protection. (For example, they have reason to believe you have a hidden weapon.)
– You have been arrested and the search is related to that arrest (such as a search for illegal drugs).
– The officer has a valid search warrant.

Reasonable Suspicion Vs Probable Cause

In order to pull you over, an officer must observe a public offense, traffic or equipment violation, or have reasonable suspicion to believe you are involved in a crime. Reasonable suspicion is a standard established by the Supreme Court in the 1968 case Terry v. Ohio, in which it ruled that police officers should be allowed to stop and briefly detain a person if, based upon the officer’s training and experience, there is reason to believe that the individual is engaging in criminal activity. Reasonable suspicion on the roadway includes swerving, weaving across lane lines, failing to signal, unexplained acceleration, slow speed, stopping unexpectedly, and driving on something other than the roadway.

In order to obtain a warrant to search your vehicle or make an arrest, the officer must have probable cause. While reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle is based upon the standard of a reasonable police officer, taking into consideration their specialized training and experience, probable cause to search for evidence or to seize evidence requires that an officer possess sufficient facts and circumstances that would lead a reasonable person to believe that the suspect has been involved in criminal activity and evidence or contraband relating to criminal activity would be found in the location to be searched.

Searching Impounded Vehicles

If police have towed and impounded your car, they can legally search inside. However, they cannot tow and impound your car for the sole purpose of conducting a search.

Seeking Legal Advice

Police searches are a serious matter and it is important that your rights remain protected. The key is to have a strong criminal defense attorney representing you. David Sereno is highly experienced in traffic law and will closely evaluate the circumstances of your case. Call our office for your free case review.