Personal Attention.
Aggressive Defense.

Photo of Thomas C. Mooney

When can the police lawfully search a vehicle during a traffic stop?

On Behalf of | Jan 6, 2024 | Criminal Defense

Frequently, those interacting with law enforcement professionals try their best to be cooperative. They believe that they can minimize the chance of an arrest by cooperating with law enforcement to the best of their ability.

That is sometimes true. Law enforcement professionals can be more understanding when interacting with people who are cooperative and compliant as compared with those who are hostile and combative. Police officers are well aware of how people behave during traffic stops and often try to use that to their advantage. They often manipulate people into giving up their rights and may create a situation in which someone faces more serious penalties than just a traffic ticket.

Officers may search a vehicle for signs of weapons, drugs or open containers of alcohol. They could then use what they find as justification to arrest someone. When can police officers legally search someone’s vehicle?

When they have permission

The easiest way for a police officer to justify searching a vehicle is to obtain permission to search the vehicle from the driver. A surprising number of people readily agree to allow officers to search their vehicles, often because they assume that there is nothing in the vehicle to implicate them. However, any other person who has ever been in the vehicle could have accidentally dropped or even intentionally hidden certain items in the vehicle. Police officers might find drugs or drug paraphernalia. There could be weapons or very old, partially-consumed bottles of alcohol. Any of those discoveries in someone’s vehicle might then lead to police officers arresting them.

When they have probable cause

Sometimes, police officers do not need to ask for someone’s permission to search a vehicle because they have probably caused to conduct a search. Probable cause is the legal term for having a reasonable suspicion of specific criminal conduct. If an officer smells drugs or sees what looks like some kind of contraband in the backseat of a vehicle, they may have probable cause that would allow them to search the vehicle without the permission of the person driving it.

Those facing criminal charges based on what police officers find during a search can sometimes use improper police behavior as part of a defense strategy. People who understand and make use of their rights are often in a better position to avoid frustrating criminal charges.