Search My Car? - No Way!



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The following is not legal advice. If you need legal advice on a traffic stop and search,only an attorney in your state can provide you with such legal advice.

Most traffic stops only last a few minutes. Your attitude has been exemplary and the officer has checked your license, registration and insurance. Hopefully you have received only a warning and you are again on your way. However, sometimes something arouses the officer’s suspicions and he asks you to step out of the car for a traffic stop and search. This is the point where a wrong move or angry word could easily land you in jail with a lot more to worry about than a simple speeding ticket. Again, this is not legal advice. This is simply general information. If you need legal advice please contact an attorney familiar with the particular jurisdiction.

Follow the officer’s instructions! You are a law abiding citizen with nothing to hide. At this point you are not in any serious trouble so do not cause any. Step out of the car slowly without any sudden movements. During a traffic stop and search, the officer has the right to pat you down for weapons. This is called a Terry Search in accordance with the Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio.

The officer is concerned for his safety so don’t take this personally. Without a doubt, he has attended the funeral of a comrade killed during a “routine” traffic stop and search. The officer does not have the right to reach into your pockets or to make you empty them unless he has found something or actually placed you under arrest.

This is the stage during the traffic stop where the officer will ask your permission to search your car. He has no right to search without probable cause or obtaining a search warrant. You will waive your rights to the admission of any evidence found in your vehicle if he obtains your voluntary permission. Most people will advise that you simply agree to the search. While this is the simplest option, you do have the right to refuse a search that is without probable cause or simply at the whim of a  police officer. I am going to give you several scenarios and you can make your own decision based on your particular circumstances and the attitude of the officer. However, you should never ever have any contraband or illegal drugs in your vehicle.

Strike A Deal

Tell the officer that you were not aware that you were driving in an unsafe manner. Ask politely if you could receive a warning instead of a traffic ticket if the search does not raise any additional issues. If he agrees then allow the search and hope he keeps his word.

 Call Your Attorney

Ask for permission to call your attorney. Everyone has a cell phone and if you have an attorney possibly he can be reached. Let your attorney talk to the officer and advise you on how to proceed. You should be allowed to call until you are under arrest. Once you are under arrest, it is at the officer’s discretion until after you are booked. Your first clue that you are under arrest is when the officer "hooks you up".

 Request A Supervisor

Politely request that you be allowed to speak with the officer's shift supervisor. State that you have nothing to hide but want to give the permission to a vehicle search to a supervisor. 

 Just Say No

You are a law abiding citizen and have the right to refuse to be searched. The officer will then have to obtain a warrant if he can show probable cause. This scenario is likely to result in the maximum speeding ticket fine and an extended stay by the roadside or possibly even being arrested and booked on even a minor violation. However, I have seen cases where luggage was strewn about and the officer drives off leaving you to spend an hour repacking. If you decide to refuse do so in a polite and respectful manner. If you are a CDL driver, the cab and cargo areas are always subject to inspection and search without a warrant. The right of refusal to a search only applies to any closed personal containers in the cab area. This may vary by jurisdiction but most courts have held that truck driving is a highly regulated industry and a truck driver does not have the same right to privacy as the driver of a personal vehicle.

 The Officer Calls for a Canine

If you refuse the officer's request to search, he can hold you for a short period of time and request that a K9 unit respond to the traffic stop. If the drug dog alerts, that is sufficient probable cause to search your vehicle. Even if the contraband would not be something that would cause the dog to alert, it is still admissible at trial. 

The vast majority of police officers are professionals and he or she is only performing their job. However, there are some officers that take advantage of their position and have fallen prey to what I term “power poison.” This is why you may want to call your attorney or speak with a supervisor in order to assure some oversight of an overzealous officer. What is important is your safety. Do not react even if provoked. Follow the officer's instructions! Be careful of anything you say since it can be used in court and, contrary to popular belief, it is not necessary that you be read your Miranda rights. Many cruisers are equipped with video camera and the officer with a body camera and the sight and sound of you cursing an officer will not endear you to a judge and jury. You can be arrested and taken to jail even for a minor speeding ticket or other traffic infraction. Then the office will have your vehicle towed and searched and the courts state that such an action is perfectly legal. 

If you are charged then there are several steps you should take to prepare for the trial. What the officer has said is also admissible in court. Pay close attention to his reason for stopping you and anything he asks or does. As soon as possible write down a timeline of everything that occurred. Almost everyone now has a camera phone. Make photographs of the scene from different perspectives. This is especially important in the event of an accident. You only have one case (I hope) to remember. The officer has dozens of cases and a discrepancy in his testimony may lead to dismissal of the charges.

If you are not charged but feel that your vehicle was illegally searched, then file a complaint with the officer's department. Most departments want to know if an officer is not following the law. 


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