Understand Your Rights With Warrantless Searches

If you were to use television shows like "Cops" and "Live PD" as a learning tool for the law, you may end up somewhat confused. These shows make it appear that you may not have any rights to keep law enforcement from searching your vehicle, but that is really not the case. Law enforcement has to abide by the laws, or their findings during an unlawful search and seizure could be invalidated. Read on to learn what your rights are, as well as how law enforcement uses loopholes to get around your consent to search.

You may or may not give permission for the search.

If law enforcement asks if they may search your vehicle, you have been given the option to say either "yes" or "no," but often you may feel so intimidated that you agree to the search. While it's easy to assume that officers search every single vehicle they encounter, the roadside stops you see on television are often targeting certain areas of town where drug or other criminal activity has historically been on their radar. You should realize, however, that if you refuse to allow a search, they have no rights to search your vehicle unless they have grounds.

What are grounds to search?

Police officers are trained to recognize signs of suspicious activity, and their suspicions give them grounds to search your car whether you agree to it or not. For example, if a handgun or drug paraphernalia is in plain sight of the officer, they have grounds to conduct a legal search. These grounds are referred to as "probable cause." Other probable cause grounds include the smell of drugs, such as marijuana or alcohol, or the behavior of those in the vehicle. For instance, if an occupant appears to be concealing something, that is probable cause to search. As you can see, the exact definition of probable cause can be wide ranging and somewhat vague. You can still object to the search, but it will likely proceed regardless of your wishes if law enforcement believe they have the grounds.

What should you do if you are stopped by the police?

Knowing your rights is all well and good, but you must also know how to conduct yourself during police stops, both for your safety and for the sake of civility. Here are some tips:

  1. You can politely refuse to allow a search with no fear of arrest just for refusing. You should keep in mind, however, that you may be detained for some length of time while a K-9 unit arrives. If the dog alerts on the outside of your vehicle, that is considered grounds for a search.
  2. Once a citation or warning has been issued to you, they cannot legally prevent you from being on your way. You don't have to say anything at all to the officer beyond giving your name, whether you have been read your Miranda Rights or not. It's best to say as little as possible.
  3. Once arrested, you still have the right to refuse a search, but now law enforcement can search "pursuant to arrest," which is legal.

Before you say something you may regret, contact a defense attorney, such as Cooper & Bayless PA,  if you have been arrested for any reason.