Although often standard and expected, traffic stops can be unnerving, especially if they involve a potential search of your vehicle. Despite many motorists feeling as though they don’t have a choice but to submit to a search, understanding your constitutional rights is pivotal.
Background on the Fourth Amendment
Under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, people are protected from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” That means that in order for a search to be lawful, there needs to be probable cause.
In the situation of a traffic stop, the police would need to believe that unlawful or criminal activity was taking place or had taken place, providing grounds for searching a vehicle.
Do I have to let the police search my car?
If you feel that your Fourth Amendment rights are being compromised or have other concerns, you do not need to consent to police searching your vehicle.
While you may be arrested for failing to submit to the search, since you did not consent, police could not lawfully search your car. If they did search your car while you were detained or under arrest, their findings would not be admissible in court since you didn’t provide consent.
Therefore, if any illegal or prohibited items were found during an unlawful search, those findings couldn’t be legally held against you.
What constitutes a search of my vehicle?
Anytime a police officer asks to look at, into or examine any part of your car, that would be considered a search.
Some areas that police might ask to see might be inside a glove box or console compartment, inside the trunk, or under the seats. While it may seem like standard procedure to allow law enforcement to look in your trunk, for example, they need your consent and probable cause for the search to be lawful.
Other considerations regarding vehicle searches
Police may be able to lawfully search your car during a traffic stop if they see illegal items in “plain view.” For example, if they saw drug paraphernalia on the dashboard or an illegal weapon on the seat, they may be able to take those items.
However, even with items in plain sight, police still must stay within the boundaries of that particular item or illegality. If police overstep and find items not related to their “plain view” findings, those findings may not be admissible or you may have legal grounds to challenge the results of the search.