A violation of your Fourth Amendment right can result in the exclusion of any evidence found therein against you in court. Stopping a vehicle is a “seizure” for Fourth Amendment purposes. Therefore, generally, police cannot stop a car unless they have at least reasonable suspicion to believe that a law has been violated.
This “reasonable suspicion” standard is a very low standard. An officer pretty much just has to believe that a law has been violated. Whether you have expired tags, did not make a complete stop at a stop sign, you are not wearing a seatbelt, you ran a red light, or even vaguely match the description of a person who violated the law, etc. The reasons to get pulled over are endless.
After an officer has reasonable suspicion to stop your car due to a suspected law violation, when can they search your car? Well, as any lawyer would tell you, it depends. I”ll go over two basic situations where an officer can search your car.
The first reason is easy: you consent. An officer will usually ask you, “do you mind if we search your car?” Your response is usually “no, go right ahead officer.” Why do they ask you this? Well, the police know they cannot search your car unless it’s justified through probable cause. A way to circumvent having probable cause is to ask for your consent. Their first step is to ask because a search is understandably justified if you simply say “yes”–although they may not have probable cause at that point to search your car.
You’d be amazed at how many people actually consent to the search of their car knowing they have some sort of contraband in the vehicle. It is bizarre that a person would consent to the search of their car, especially if they have something illegal in it. Well, knowledge is power, and everyone should be aware that they can say “no” to a search of their car or even their person. Let the police find another way to legally search you. If you agree to the search because you believe that the police will be lenient on you, you are wrong. They will use anything they find against you. My advice: say “no.” Better yet, don’t break the law.
The second reason an officer could search your car is the infamous “probable cause.” What is probable cause? Probable cause is best defined where a person has a reasonable belief that a crime has been committed. Probable cause is a higher standard than the aforementioned reasonable suspicion standard. Probable cause therefore would require an officer to act as a reasonable prudent person in that the facts are probably true and must base that decision on sufficiently supported facts. Hence, if you get pulled over and the smell of marijuana is emitting from your vehicle, then you have provided an officer with probable cause to search your car because your car probably contains marijuana and other drug paraphernalia.
If you get pulled over and you smell like alcohol and are slurring your words, there is likely probable cause to search your car for evidence that you have been drinking such as any open containers, etc. If you unfortunately match the description of someone that just committed a crime, an officer has probable cause to search your car for evidence of said crime.
Finally, watch out for items that are in plain view that an officer can easily see through the windows of your car because any contraband that they see will provide an officer with probable cause to further search your car. These are just a few situations where your car can be searched.
Remember nothing is ever certain since there are always exceptions to rules and various surrounding circumstances can have an impact on the application of the law. This is merely marginal legal advice–we are not your lawyers!