Photo of attorney Cierra N. Norris and Evan Finneke

When do the police have the right to search your car?

by | Jul 23, 2021 | Civil Rights |

If you are ever in a situation where the police ask you if they can search your car, you have a quick decision to make. Are they asking simply to be polite, but they intend to search your car regardless of your answer? Or can you actually say no? It’s essential to know your Constitutional rights before you interact with a police officer, so that you can know in which situations you can legally refuse a requested search.

The Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution grants you protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. This means that the police cannot enter places where you have a reasonable expectation of privacy – such as your home, workplace or vehicle – for no reason at all.

This doesn’t mean that they can never search your car. It simply means that they must have a legally valid reason for doing so. This is what the legal system calls “probable cause.”

The probable cause requirement

Probable cause means that the police offer has reason to believe that a crime has occurred, and that a search will uncover evidence of that crime. This belief has to be based on some reasonable evidence – it cannot be a simple hunch.

Thus, when a police officer pulls you over, they cannot search your car without probable cause – unless you grant them permission. There are a few different scenarios in which the police officer clearly has probable cause – and thus is justified in searching your car even without your permission. These scenarios are:

·       If they place you under arrest

·       If evidence of a crime is clearly visible (such as on the dashboard or on a seat)

·       If they have reason to believe that you were driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol

·       If there is reason to believe that you have committed or were on your way to commit a crime

The Constitution serves the essential role of protecting citizens from police overreach. It’s important to know your rights so that you can invoke them when the time is right.