Getting pulled over by the police can be an alarming experience, especially if it has never happened to you before. You might be inclined to consent to anything the police officer asks—including a search of your vehicle—in order to get the traffic stop over with as soon as possible. However, you need to recognize that you still have certain rights when the police pull you over, and a police officer cannot search your car for contraband unless they have probable cause or you explicitly give them permission.
Requirements for a Legal Vehicle Search
In order to pull you over in the first place, a police officer needs to have a reasonable suspicion that you have committed an infraction. This generally means that they either need to have seen you committing a traffic infraction, such as speeding or changing lanes without signaling, or they need to have received a tip from a driver or a pedestrian (although the validity of an anonymous tip can be challenged in court).
Even if a police officer does have reason to pull you over, they don’t necessarily have probable cause to search your vehicle. That’s because committing a traffic violation generally isn’t evidence that you’re carrying anything illegal in your car. It is possible for an officer to search your car without a warrant, though, if anything that happens at the traffic stop gives them reason to believe that you might be carrying something illegal. For example, a police officer might search your car if your answers to any of their questions arouse suspicion that you are hiding something. It’s generally best to be polite but to decline answering the police officer’s questions until you’ve had an opportunity to speak with your attorney.
One other way that a police officer can perform a legal search of your car is to detain you based on reasonable suspicion and wait for another officer to show up with a search warrant. This warrant will allow them to search all areas of your car, including the trunk or a locked glove compartment.
A Vehicle Search is Illegal When There Is No Probable Cause
In some cases, a police officer’s reason for pulling over and searching a vehicle won’t hold up in court. For example, in one recent case reported on by the Denver Post, a 69-year-old Colorado man, Darien Roseen, was pulled over by an Idaho state trooper who claimed that he failed to signal when exiting the highway (Roseen stated that he did signal). The officer then claimed that he could smell marijuana, which he used as probable cause to search Roseen’s vehicle. He didn’t find anything, and Roseen is now suing on the basis that the officer discriminated against him based on his Colorado license plate.
In this type of case, when no contraband is found in the vehicle, it is relatively easy to prove that an officer had no probable cause to perform a search. However, it is also sometimes possible to prove that there was no probable cause even when an officer does find something illegal in the car. If your defense attorney can show that there was no reason for the police officer to have reasonable suspicion, the vehicle search will be ruled illegal, and anything that was found in that search cannot be used as evidence against you in court.
About the Author:
Kimberly Diego is a criminal defense attorney in Denver practicing at The Law Office of Kimberly Diego. She obtained her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University and her law degree at the University of Colorado. She was named one of Super Lawyers’ “Rising Stars of 2012” and “Top 100 Trial Lawyers in Colorado” for 2012 and 2013 by The National Trial Lawyers. Both honors are limited to a small percentage of practicing attorneys in each state. She has also been recognized for her work in domestic violence cases..