Can the Police Search My Car for Drugs?
Getting pulled over by the police is always a nerve-wracking experience, even if you feel that you’ve done nothing to violate the law. The experience of getting pulled over can become even more stressful if the officer requests permission to search your vehicle.
What gives police officers a right to search your vehicle?The US Constitution's Fourth Amendment prohibits unlawful searches and seizures by police officers or other state actors. It is this amendment that creates the requirement that, when police officers don't have an individual's consent, they must obtain a warrant from a judge before they're allowed to search that individual's personal property. However, there are many exceptions to the warrant requirement, including the automobile exception. Generally, police can search your car whenever they have probable cause to conduct a search.
Searches based on consentThe easiest way for a police officer to gain the authority to search your property is by asking for (and receiving) your consent to a search. That said, if a police officer asks to search your car, you are under no obligation to say yes. You can always calmly and politely decline such a request. If the officer conducts the search anyway, they will need to have a legal basis for doing so, or else anything they find that results in criminal charges (or that supports existing charges) will be inadmissible in court.
Searches based on probable causeThe "probable cause" requirement means that police are obligated to point to some fact or circumstance that supported their belief that you were involved in criminal activity. One example of a basis for probable cause would be where an officer could see drug-related items in your car, or where the smell of marijuana emanated from your car. Police can also search your car upon a lawful arrest, when your car is impounded, or if they believe that their safety is threatened (such as by seeing a weapon in your car). An officer's belief that they have probable cause to conduct a search doesn't always mean that they're right. Attorneys can challenge this assertion by police and, when no probable cause existed, successfully prevent courts from considering what police found when they conducted their illegal search.