Any traffic stop can produce a lot of anxiety, so when you get pulled over for driving too fast, too slow or through a red light, your heart may be in your throat when the officer asks if they can search your vehicle. Since all kinds of things can be mistaken for drugs by the police, it’s smarter to decline.

Do you have that option? Can the police search your car anyhow? The answer to both questions is, “maybe.”

Your Constitutional right against unfair search and seizure prohibits the police from searching your vehicle without your permission, a warrant or a valid reason. It’s that “valid reason” that sometimes lets the police take a peek inside cars despite the lack of either permission or a warrant. The police can search your car when:

  • The officers have a reasonable belief that a search is required to protect their safety.
  • You’ve already been arrested, and the police are seeking evidence that could be related to a crime.
  • The officer has probable cause to believe your vehicle contains evidence of a crime.
  • Your car has been impounded and towed for some reason (like overdue tickets).

For example, if the officer glances into your vehicle and sees a glass pipe sitting between your seats, that might be probable cause to believe that you’ve got drugs in the car. Similarly, if you’re arrested for driving while impaired, that might be an excuse for the police to search your vehicle for additional evidence.

So, how do you handle it when a police officer asks to search your car? It may seem like the ways that an officer can get around your refusal are many — and that’s probably true. However, if you decline the request, you preserve your rights and allow your defense attorney an opportunity to argue that the search was unlawful.