What to do if the police ask to search your car

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Photo: Anne Kitzman (Shutterstock)

Americans spend a lot of time in their cars, so it’s not surprising the police intercept a ground of us—about 50,000 per day and 20 million each year. If you’ve ever been arrested (and based on these numbers, you probably have), you know how nerve-wracking the experience can be. Simply put, the police have all the power in a traffic stop – or at least they want you to believe it. So when a police officer asks if they can search your car, it’s hard to know what to do.

For most people this will be a alarming demand, involving the officer suspects you are doing something illegal. On the one hand, there’s the old adage that if you have nothing to hide, you just have to comply, especially when so many run-ins with the police go awry. On the other hand, your vehicle is your private property, and you have rights.

It’s time to think about it now, when you are calm and have access to information. Waiting until your adrenaline is skyrocketing and any attempt to google your options can be misinterpreted is a bad idea. So Here’s what to say and do when a cop asks to search your vehicle.

Be polite

One of the most stressful aspects of a roadside check is the power mismatch, and although most the police go conduct themselves professionally, it’s primordial you don’t escalate the encounter by being angry or insulting. There are certain requests or commands that you must absolutely comply with 100%:

  • Produce your license, insurance and registration on request.
  • Obey specific commands. If the officer tells you to get out of the vehicle, do so.

That is just about everything. There are also things the police can do without your permission:

  • Visually examine the exterior of the vehicle and access databases to see if your car has been reported stolen or if the registered owner (presumably you) has outstanding warrants.
  • Visually examine the interior of the car – if something is in plain sight, the police do not need additional justification for conducting a search and/or arrest. For example, if you have a gun in the passenger seat of your car, the cops will be completely justified in searching your vehicle, even if you have all the necessary paperwork for the gun.

Anything else the agent may ask or tell you to do is the gray area between your rights and their work. The bottom line is that a cop’s job is do not to excuse you. In other words, the police, even if they are absolutely professional and do their job properly, are not your friends. Policing is hard and dangerous work, and making friends with people they stop is not in their best interest. Which means allowing a search of your car on demand is not in yours.

know your Fourth Amendment Rights

The fourth amendment of the The Constitution protects Americans of unlawful search and seizure, which means, in short, that tThe police cannot search your car without probable cause or without your permission.

Cops have broad authority in most situations. The probable cause is a cloudy subject; although the police cannot simply state that they have a hunch or hunch, it doesn’t take much to warrant a search – if the officer states that they smelled alcohol or another substance , that’s all it needs. So the first thing to know is this: if the officer asks permission to search your car, he have no probable cause. If they did, they would already be searching your vehicle.

The only sentence to remember

The second thing to know is that you have every right to refuse this authorization. Your car is your property, and without probable cause, you can simply say no to the request. The phrase “I do not consent to a search of my vehicle” should be all you need to know. If the officer thinks they have good reason to search your car, they can get a warrant, usually within minutes over the phone.

So why are the police asking if they can search your car? It’s the same reason they’ll ask you if you know why they arrested you, or if you were drunk, or (my favorite) if there’s another reason you might get in trouble: they’re fishing. They hope you incriminate yourself. Because their job is not to exculpate you or prove your innocence, their job is to catch people who have committed crimes. They want to search your car to see if there’s a crime to charge you with.

In other words, consenting to a search of your car is never in your best interest, whether you have a body in the trunk or have never broken a law in your life. Be polite, but firmly state that you do not consent. You don’t need to provide a reason – if the agent rushes you, just repeat that you don’t consent. If the officer proceeds with a search anyway, do not resist. You will have the opportunity to file a complaint after the shutdown is complete.

Brandon D. James