Vehicle searches can be intimidating. If a police officer demands to search your car, you may feel nervous—even if you’ve done nothing wrong.
Is the officer legally allowed to search your car?
Can you refuse the search?
Should you allow the officer to search your car and hope the ordeal is over with quickly?
In any encounter with law enforcement, remember that you have the right to an attorney and the right to remain silent — you don’t have to wait until after you have been formally arrested, and you don’t have to answer questions asked by a police officer.
While you do not have the right to have an attorney present during a vehicle search, you should contact one as soon as you are able to if you are unsure of your rights or are afraid your rights have been violated.
If you have yet to experience a vehicle search, it’s best to know your rights before it happens. If your vehicle has recently been searched, let’s talk about what the police are legally able to do during a search—and if they overstepped their bounds in your case.
What will happen during a vehicle search:
When conducting a vehicle search, police officers are expected to follow procedures depending on the circumstances of the search. A vehicle search that occurs during a traffic stop or a DUI roadblock is different from a search conducted on an impounded vehicle.
Pulled over while driving
When you get pulled over, the officer will probably ask you for identifying information—driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance. Then, the officer may ask you to step out of your car. Once you’ve exited the vehicle, the officer will ask to search your car. If you say, “yes,” the officer will conduct the search. However, if you say, “no,” there are other ways a legal search could still happen:
- The officer can request a search warrant for your vehicle. Once the warrant is approved, the officer can search your vehicle.
- The officer has reason to believe your car contains evidence of a crime. In this situation, the officer can search your car without a search warrant or your consent.
In each of the above situations, if the police find any evidence of a crime, you can be put under arrest.
If your car is impounded for any reason, police officers have the right to conduct a thorough search of the vehicle. They are legally permitted to open all containers and compartments in the vehicle, including locked compartments. Again, if police discover any criminal evidence, they can put out a warrant for your arrest.
Although police may have the right to search your vehicle under certain circumstances, you also have rights that law enforcement should respect. Understanding your rights is essential so you’ll know what police can and can’t do according to the law.
Your rights during a vehicle search
If the police want to search your vehicle, you maintain the right to:
- Refuse your consent for the search. However, if police reasonably believe your car contains criminal evidence, they can search it despite your refusal.
- Remain silent. You don’t have to answer any questions apart from providing identifying information.
- Leave the scene if you’re free to go. Ask the police officer, “Am I under arrest?” If the answer is, “No,” then you may be able to leave. However, you can be detained without being arrested, which means you can’t leave. So, just because you are not under arrest does not mean you can automatically leave.
In addition to your rights, you have responsibilities that you must uphold in the event of a vehicle search.
What to do during a vehicle search:
How you interact with police officers during a traffic stop or vehicle search impacts your rights and your safety.
If an officer pulls you over and conducts a vehicle search, you must:
- Provide your identifying information when the officer asks for it, including your driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance.
- Remain calm. Speak to the officer in a neutral tone of voice, avoiding rude or disrespectful remarks.
- Stay out of the police officer’s way. Do not obstruct the officer’s search.
Even if you believe your vehicle is being searched unlawfully, the time to argue is not when an armed police officer is searching your car. If you can, get the officer’s name and badge number. Then, at the next opportunity, contact a criminal defense lawyer.
Has your vehicle been searched? Talk to a lawyer today.
If your vehicle search resulted in an arrest or a citation, an experienced criminal defense attorney can help you fight back. Review the details of your vehicle search with a lawyer to determine whether or not the police violated your rights.
The legal defense team at Kent Collins Law is here for you. We will gladly answer your questions and guide you through the next steps of your case.
Call 803-808-0905 to schedule a free in person consultation. Or fill out our online form so that we may contact you to schedule an in person consultation.