Everyone has basic rights under the law when it comes to searches by law enforcement, but those rights must coexist with a police officer's right to be safe and to keep the public safe and crime-free. When you get stopped by law enforcement, do they have a right to search you and your vehicle? Read on to find out more.
Most people understand that law enforcement personnel can only do so much without a warrant signed by a judge, but that does not mean that warrantless searches are entirely illegal. To make it legal there must exist probable cause, or grounds, to suspect that there is illegal activity being perpetrated by you or by someone riding in your vehicle.
Grounds to Search
The grounds to justify a search without a search warrant vary as widely as the circumstances. Officers must not only be suspicious that illegal activity is afoot, but they must view or have specific knowledge of it. Some of these include:
1. Drug paraphernalia, weapons, or anything illegal within plain sight from the outside of your vehicle.
2. Smells of alcohol or marijuana emanating from you or your vehicle.
3. Previous information about a suspect in a crime that matches the description of someone in the car or the car itself.
4. Personal knowledge about the identity of an occupant and their history of offenses.
With these grounds for a search verified, the searches that are subsequently carried out are called 'incident to arrest'. In other words, there is reason to strongly believe that an arrest is imminent and will be based on what is uncovered in the search.
What to know about vehicle stops and searches
Needless to say, the grounds and motives for conducting searches are somewhat vague, and there are no repercussions for law enforcement when nothing illegal is located after one of these warrantless searches. If you get pulled over, here is what you need to know:
1. If the officer asks you for permission to search your vehicle you have the right to refuse. You must remember that if the officer has strong suspicions, then they don't need your permission to conduct a search.
2. If you refuse, they may still carry out the search, but your lack of permission will go on the record and might be a factor if you find yourself standing trial for an offense resulting from that search.
3. If you refuse to give permission for the search, never attempt to leave until the officer gives you permission to do so.
4. You must provide the officer with identification or at least your (real) name, age, and Social Security number. You cannot just refuse to say anything at all. You do not, however, need to say anything more, and that is true whether you have been read your Miranda Rights or not.
When an illegal search has been performed, an entire criminal case is on the line. Speak to a criminal law attorney for help if you've been arrested.