Red, white, and blue are the colors of freedom until you see them flashing behind you. You begin to panic. Is he pulling me over? Or someone else? When you realize you are the lucky one being signaled to pull over, you steer to the side of the road and wait for the officer to greet you at your car window. The stop seems normal, but when the officer asks if he can search your car, you are confused. Isn’t this just a traffic stop?

Unlike a home, cars do not require a warrant to be searched. That does not mean an officer can search for no reason at all. An officer must have more than a “hunch” to search, such as your consent or reasonable suspicion. Sometimes, an officer allowing drug dogs to sniff, seeing a gun, or spotting a contraband item in the back seat is enough to conduct a search of your vehicle.

You can be searched in two ways: if you give consent and allow the officer to search your vehicle or if an officer has reasonable suspicion, such as if suspecting something in your vehicle that is dangerous or illegal.

Contrary to belief, you have the right to tell a police officer “no” if he or she asks to search your car. In most cases, an officer will ask something along the lines of “do you mind if I look around the car a little bit?” Or they will ask, “Is there is anything I should know about in your car?” If you say “yes”, you give the officer permission to search your car. It is always best to say “no” without offering any more information. A polite way of refusing to have your car searched is by saying, “I’m sorry officer, but I won’t consent to a search.”

The Fourth Amendment protects you from “unreasonable searches and seizures,” which applies to your vehicle. When asked to search your car say “no” politely and be direct. If an officer searches your vehicle and violates your Fourth Amendment rights, any evidence gathered of illegal items will typically be inadmissible in court.

When you refuse to consent to be searched, the officer must make a decision to detain or let you go. If you are detained, the officer must have reasonable suspicion based on specific and articulable facts that your car possess criminal activity. It is important to use your Fifth Amendment right and remain silent if detained. Never admit to anything! It can be used in court against you and reduce the chances of fighting your ticket.

How to determine if vehicle stops are lawful:

  1. Vehicle Stops

An officer must have reasonable suspicion to believe you broke the law if you are stopped. If the officer had no legitimate reason to pull you over, the stop and the search (if conducted) are illegal. Only certain circumstances, including DUI checkpoints and roadblocks, allow officers to stop vehicles without reasonable suspicion.

2. Vehicle Searches

An officer cannot simply search a vehicle because he stopped you for a traffic violation. The officer must have probable cause that the car contains criminal activity, including drugs or illegal weapons, to conduct a search.

If you are pulled over, follow these tips from Bryant Law Center attorney, Emily Roark:

  • pull over to the shoulder or side of the road (depending on where you are driving)
  • do not make any sudden movements once stopped
  • turn on inside lights of your car
  • turn off the ignition
  • leave your hands on the steering wheel
  • do not reach for any documents in the glove compartment until the officer asks
  • stay calm when talking to the officers and be polite
  • do not give any additional information other than your license, registration, and proof of insurance to the officer