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Car searches: what police can and can’t do

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When you are pulled over for violation of a traffic law, the police officer may want to also search your car depending on the circumstances. This is normally done if there is probable cause. For example, if your car smells like marijuana, the police officer that pulled you over might suspect that you have other drugs or drug-related paraphernalia hidden in the car. If there isn’t probable cause and a police officer wants to search your car, you have the right to ask why. Whether you are innocent or not, it’s important to know the laws regarding car searches and what’s in your trunk.

The following questions and answers will give you the necessary information you need to know about car searches under the law.

What do I do if an officer insists on searching my car? If a police office has probable cause, he or she can insist on searching your car. When this happens, do not interfere. It is better to challenge the validity of the search in court rather than with a police officer.

What is probable cause? Probable cause regarding car searches is considered a reasonable basis for police officers to strongly believe that the vehicle contains incriminating evidence. Therefore, the officers are legally justified in carrying out a search of the car.

What part of the vehicle can the police search under probable cause? Normally, the police can search the immediate area in and around the driver’s front seat. Some state laws offer greater protection against vehicle searches than others.

Can the police search my glove compartment? Yes. The glove compartment is considered, by law, part of the area in and around the driver’s front seat.

Can the police search a closed container if it is inside my car? Police are permitted to search any closed containers or packages found in your car under a legitimate search of a vehicle without a warrant. The container can only be inspected if there is a reasonable claim that it might contain evidence of a crime for which the police had probable cause to search the vehicle in the first place. The Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that the police do not have to have a warrant in order to search closed containers found in the passenger compartment of a motor vehicle whose occupant is under arrest.

Can the police search my vehicle without a warrant? This all depends on the circumstance regarding the reason why you were pulled over by the police in the first place. The police would not normally have the right to search your vehicle if they stopped you for a simple traffic violation such as running a stop sign, but if the violation requires that you be taken into custody the search would generally be allowed. The police have more leeway when it comes to searching a vehicle than they do when searching a home. The United States Supreme Court recognizes an automobile exception under the Forth Amendment’s protection against searches without a warrant.

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