Getting pulled over by the police is a difficult experience even in the best of circumstances. People often experience intense fear or anxiety during these interactions and may unknowingly do things that put them at increased legal risk.
For example, officers will often request permission to search a vehicle when they don’t have probable cause. The subject of the traffic stop may quickly accede to such requests, hoping that their compliance will result in a positive outcome.
Unfortunately, officers could find something in your vehicle that could lead to criminal charges that you don’t even know is there. Denying permission to search your vehicle is usually the best way to protect yourself. However, in some situations, the police may look for a way around your denial and conduct a search anyhow.
When do police have the right to conduct a search without permission?
Without a warrant or permission, there is only one situation in which an officer has the legal right to search your vehicle. Officers can conduct a search of your vehicle if they have probable cause.
Probable cause is not the same thing as a general suspicion. Probable cause means they have every reason to believe you have committed the crime or were in the process of doing so at the time that they stopped your vehicle. Drug paraphernalia, open bottles of booze and visible weapons may all give officers probable cause to search your vehicle.
If they find something illegal in your vehicle, even if it is something left behind by a previous passenger or a former owner, you could wind up facing charges because of that search. Knowing your rights can help you a better advocate for yourself during encounters with law enforcement and potentially avoid serious charges, like drug charges, that can result from the police searching your vehicle.