No you don't have to consent to a vehicle search, and if you don't consent, there are limits on how long you can be held.
Do I have to consent to a search?
No. However, police can search in the following circumstances:
1. You have given your consent to a search of your vehicle;
2. The police have “probable cause” to believe the car contains contraband or evidence of a crime;
3. The police are lawfully arresting an occupant of the car—and either the arrestee is within reaching distance of the interior of the car, or it is reasonable to believe the car contains evidence about the crime for which he/she is being arrested;
4. The police are temporarily detaining an occupant of the car (as part of a Terry "stop-and-frisk"), and reasonably believe that s/he may be dangerous and have access to weapons stored in the car; or
5. The car has been lawfully impounded by law enforcement (as may happen if you commit Vehicle Code 14601 driving on a suspended license), and they are conducting an “inventory search."
How long can the police detain me if I don't consent to a search of my vehicle?
Although police officers are allowed to detain people in order to help them pursue leads and figure out what happened, there are certain limitations on this power of detainment. First, the police officer must tell you whether or not you are actually being detained. This can be determined by asking the police officer, “Am I free to leave?” If the police officer says yes, then you are free to leave and go about your business without delay. However, if the police officer says no, you are not free to leave, then you cannot leave until the police officer is finished with his questions for you or his investigation into the crime.
This detainment can take anywhere from minutes to several hours. If this is the case, and you are being detained by the police officer, then you can ask them whether they have reasonable suspicion or probable cause to keep you. If they have neither reasonable suspicion or probable cause to keep you, then they are generally not allowed to keep you. However, just because this is what the law requires, does not mean the officer will follow it. Sometimes police officers do not follow the law.
Although this is a direct violation of your civil liberties, arguing the point with the police officer right then may only escalate the situation. You should therefore remember any violations on the part of the police in order to tell your lawyer at a later time, but avoid any further remarks.
So the length of time the police can detain you depends on the facts of the particular situation, the severity of the case being investigated, and the particular officer involved.
Remedies for an unlawful search.
If you are the victim of an unlawful vehicle search by police, and you are charged with a crime based on evidence found in the search, then you and your attorney can challenge the evidence.
This is usually done through a Penal Code 1538.5 PC motion to suppress evidence, which is an important kind of California pretrial motion.
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