What to Do If a Police Officer Asks to Search Your Car
Americans spend a lot of time in their cars, so it’s no surprise that the police stop so many of us – about 50,000 a day and 20 million a year . If you’ve ever been pulled over (and judging by these numbers, you probably have been) you know how nerve-wracking the experience can be. Simply put, the police have all the power to stop traffic – or at least they want you to believe they do. 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 disturbing request, implying that the officer suspects that you are doing something illegal. On the one hand, there is the old adage that if you have nothing to hide, you should just comply, especially when so many confrontations with the police turn out to be dire. On the other hand, your vehicle is your private property and you have rights.
The time to think about it is now , when you are calm and have access to information. Waiting for your adrenaline to skyrocket and any attempt to google your options may be misinterpreted is a bad idea. So, here’s what to say and do when a police officer asks to search your car.
One of the most stressful aspects of a traffic stop is power disparity, and while most cops will act professionally, it’s imperative that you don’t escalate the collision by being angry or insulting. There are certain requests or commands that you must follow absolutely, 100 percent:
- Present license, insurance and registration upon request.
- Follow certain commands. If an officer tells you to get out of the car, do so.
That’s all. There are also things the police can do without your permission:
- Visually inspect the exterior of the vehicle and access databases to see if your vehicle has been reported stolen or if the registered owner (presumably you) has any outstanding warrants.
- Visually inspect the interior of the car – if something is in sight, the police do not need additional reasons to proceed with a search and / or detention. For example, if you have a handgun in the passenger seat of your car, the cops will have every right to search your car even if you have all the necessary weapons documents.
Anything an officer might ask you to do or tell you to do falls into a gray area between your rights and their job. The main thing to remember is that the job of a policeman is not to exonerate you. In other words, the police – even if they are completely professional and doing their job right – are not your friends. Police work is hard and dangerous work, and it’s not in their best interest to befriend the people they stop. And this means that permission to search your car on request is not yours.
Know your rights under the Fourth Amendment
The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects Americans from illegal searches and seizures, which, in short, means that the police cannot search your car without a good reason or without your permission.
Police officers have broad powers in most situations. The likely cause is an obscure topic; while the police can’t just claim they have a hunch or a hunch, it doesn’t take long to justify a search – if a police officer claims they smelled alcohol or some other substance, that’s all they need. So the first thing to know is this: if an officer asks for permission to search your car, he has no probable cause . If they did, they would have already searched your car.
One phrase to remember
The second thing to know is that you have every right to refuse this permission. Your vehicle is your property, and without a likely reason for a search, you can simply refuse the request. The phrase “I do not consent to a search of my vehicle” should be all you need to know. If an officer thinks he has a good reason to search your car, he can get a warrant, usually within minutes over the phone.
So why are the police asking if they can search your car? For the same reason, they will ask if you know why they stopped you, or if you were drunk, or (my favorite) is there any other reason you might be in trouble: they are fishing. They hope that you will incriminate yourself. Since their job is not to exonerate you or prove you innocent, their job is to catch people who have committed crimes. They want to search your car to see if there is a crime they can charge you with.
In other words, agreeing to have your car searched is never in your best interest—whether you have a body in the trunk or have never broken the law in your life. Be polite but firmly state that you disagree. You don’t need to give a reason – if the officer presses you, just repeat that you don’t agree. If the officer conducts the search anyway, don’t resist . You will have the opportunity to file a complaint after the stop has ended.