When a police officer pulls you over for a traffic stop, they likely hope to write a citation or otherwise catch you in a criminal act. If your conduct during the traffic stop disappoints those expectations, the officer might start fishing for a reason to detain or arrest you.
When you have not obviously violated traffic laws, an officer might try to prove that you broke another law instead by searching your vehicle for evidence of a crime. Not only could a search of your vehicle make the stop last longer, but it could lead to criminal charges.
When can a police officer search your vehicle without violating your rights?
When you give permission
Perhaps the most common reason that police officers search someone’s vehicle during a traffic stop is that the driver agrees to the search. Even if an officer makes the request sound informal, giving permission to search could lead to criminal charges against you.
Many people, hoping to just get on with their day, allow a police officer to search their vehicle during a traffic stop, only to have that officer find something they didn’t even know was there. Anything they find in your vehicle could lead to charges, even if you didn’t know it was there.
When they have probable cause
Sometimes, a police officer will see evidence in plain sight of criminal activity. An unsecured firearm or drug paraphernalia in the backseat could lead an officer to search your vehicle without your permission. The smell of certain drugs or alcohol could also be a justification to search a vehicle.
When an officer has not just a suspicion but some concrete reason to believe a crime has occurred, they can search your vehicle using that probable cause as justification.
When they have a warrant
Not every driver will give an officer permission or a quick excuse to search their vehicle. It may only be after an officer questions someone that they have enough information to go and ask a judge for a search warrant for the vehicle. If a judge signs a search warrant, the officer can then go through the vehicle at their leisure looking for evidence against the driver.
Knowing when a police officer can search your vehicle might help you decide on the best criminal defense strategy for your pending criminal charges.