Having a broad understanding of your legal rights may help you avoid falling on the wrong side of the law, and this may prove especially true during a traffic stop. Knowing when authorities have a legal right to search your car – and when they do not – may help you avoid getting “tricked” into consenting to a search.
To legally search your home, law enforcement officials need to have a warrant. However, when a law enforcement officer stops you in your vehicle, he or she needs to have one of three things to conduct a lawful search: a warrant, your permission or probable cause.
Defining probable cause
Probable cause means officers need to have more than a broken tail light or a suspicion that something unlawful is in your vehicle. To move forward with searching your car without your permission, the officer on the scene needs to observe something or have some sort of tangible evidence that you or someone else in the car is doing or possessing something against the law.
Acting in the absence of probable cause
Without your permission, a warrant or probable cause, you may tell the officer that you plan to exercise your right to refuse a search. When stating this, be courteous and polite, but be firm, too. You may then ask the officer if you are free to go about your day or night.
Try to be courteous and polite throughout the encounter, starting with the moment the officer approaches your car. Being combative rarely works in your favor.