When a police officer pulls you over, you may groan in frustration. You will likely spend 10 or 20 minutes on the side of the road even if all they do is write you a ticket. Getting pulled over might mean that you are late to work or to an important appointment.
The police officer likely won’t care that you were in a rush but will instead want to thoroughly explore the situation. Sometimes, they might even want to search your vehicle. What they find during that search might mean that you get arrested instead of just ticketed.
When can a police officer go through your car during a traffic stop?
When you allow them to search
Police officers will often casually ask if they can go through your vehicle while discussing the traffic infraction or other issue with you. Many people will immediately agree to let an officer search, not realizing that they can’t rescind that permission later.
Unfortunately, that compliant behavior might lead to some people getting arrested and facing criminal charges because of what the officer finds in the vehicle. You could face charges even if they find something that you didn’t know was there.
When they have probable cause
Generally, a police officer needs a justification to perform a search without a warrant. The Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable searches. However, the police officer has probable cause that a crime has occurred, then they could search your vehicle. The presence of drug paraphernalia or open bottles of alcohol could provide a police officer with an excuse to go through your vehicle.
If you don’t give permission and they don’t have probable cause, then the only other reason the police officer could search your vehicle would be if they obtained a warrant to do so. To get a warrant, the officer will usually need some kind of compelling claim that convinces a judge that your vehicle has some role in criminal activity or contains evidence.
Understanding your rights and the limits on police conduct can help you plan a criminal defense strategy, like challenging the legality of a search.