Being pulled over by law enforcement is always a stressful situation, but even more so when the officer wants to search your car. Often, people don’t realize what their rights are in this situation–or that they even have rights at all. Here’s what you need to know.
Does a Police Officer Need a Warrant to Search My Car?
The Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution state that for law enforcement to search a person’s private property, including their vehicle, the officer must have reasonable grounds to do so. Usually, that involves the officer getting a search warrant before ordering the search.
However, California law created several loopholes that allow police officers to search a car without a warrant. Some of these loopholes include the following:
The driver gave permission. If the officer asks to search the car and the driver says yes, no warrant is needed. Many people think they don’t really have a choice but to give permission, but in fact, you can say no. If you say yes, and the police find something illegal during the search, that can legally be used against you in court, even though there was no warrant.
The officer saw something illegal in plain view. If an illegal weapon or drug is sitting in plain sight (for example, on the passenger seat), the officer doesn’t need a warrant to conduct a search. The same applies to odors such as marijuana or alcohol. If the officer identifies the odor, they have the right to search the vehicle.
The officer had a search warrant. If the officer had a warrant, you have no legal grounds to stop them from searching the car.
The officer has probable cause. Probable cause means the police know specific facts, and those facts would typically cause them to be able to get a search warrant. However, knowing the facts in some instances falls under something called the vehicle exception to the umbrella rule that police searches require warrants. There are two primary reasons why the vehicle exception exists:
Unlike a building, a vehicle can be moved quickly, and evidence removed or lost while the officer tries to get a search warrant.
A person in a car has a reduced expectation of privacy compared to a person in a home.
Probable cause can include things such as reliable information that the car has evidence of a crime (whether it’s in plain view as noted above or the officer gained that information from someone trustworthy, such as an undercover agent) or the driver or passengers are behaving suspiciously. A typical example of probable cause is when an officer approaches a parked car, and the driver suddenly takes off to avoid talking to the officer. The officer can then say that that’s suspicious behavior, as someone with nothing to hide would have no reason not to at least talk to the officer. Another example is if an officer asks the people in the car if they have something illegal, such as cocaine, in the car, and they answer yes—the officer then has probable cause.
You’re Arrested and/or Your Car Is Impounded. Once a police officer formally arrests you (which requires them to read you the Miranda rights as soon as they make the arrest), they have the right to search the car without a warrant. The same applies if your car is impounded for any reason. As part of impounding a car, the police may do what’s called an inventory search, which means they take inventory of the car. Anything illegal found during the inventory search can be used against you in court. Someone’s car can be impounded if they’re caught driving with a suspended or outdated license.
What Should I Do if a Police Officer Pulls Me Over in California?
If a law enforcement officer of any kind (police, sheriff, or state highway patrol) signals with their vehicle lights that they want you to pull over, you should pull over as soon as it’s safe to do so. Turn the engine off, roll down your window, and place your hands on the steering wheel. If the officer asks for your driver’s license and/or car registration, provide them.
If the officer asks if you have anything illegal in the car, you have the right to remain silent (and should say so). If the officer asks to search the car, you have the right to refuse unless the officer has probable cause or a warrant.
If the stop results in an arrest, you have the right to ask for an attorney; otherwise, you still have the right to remain silent. You also have the right to remain silent about your immigration status.
Things you shouldn’t do: Don’t fight with the officer, either verbally or physically. That could be interpreted as obstructing arrest or assaulting a police officer, either of which could aggravate your case and result in additional charges. Stay calm, and don’t lie.
What Should I Do if a Police Officer Searched My Car, and I’m Not Sure They Had Legal Grounds for the Search?
Call the SoCal Law Network at 949-305-7995 to set up a free consultation as soon as possible. We can walk you through your specific case and determine if the search was legal or not. If it doesn’t appear to be legal, we can prepare your defense and request that any charges be dismissed because the search was done improperly. If it was legal, we could explore other legal avenues to achieve the best outcome possible.