It can be nerve wracking when the police pull you over. When they ask you a question, such as “May I search your trunk?” or “What’s in that bag?” you might be unsure of your legal obligations. Is the officer merely being polite and asking first even though they have the right to search it anyway? Or do you actually have the right to refuse their request?
Your Fourth Amendment rights
The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution grants you specific protections against police overreach. It protects your home, person and car from a random police search for no reason.
In order to conduct a search, the police need probable cause. This means that they must have a reason to believe that your house, person or car contains evidence of a crime or a dangerous weapon that threatens them.
In other words, the police cannot pull you over just to search your car for no reason. It’s important to note, however, that a string of court decisions has established that you have fewer rights to privacy in your car than you do in your home. This is because you drive your car in public, in plain view of everyone, whereas your house is more secluded and private.
When can they search your car?
If the police pull you over and ask for permission to search your car, and you consent, they have the legal right to search it. This is why, if you do not want them to search your car, it’s best to say no or to remain silent.
However, there are a few circumstances under which they can search your car even if you do not consent to the search. For example, if they present to you a valid warrant, or if they take you into custody, then they can search it without your permission.
Finally, if they see anything suspicious in plain view in your car that makes them think that your car contains evidence, that can give them the probable cause they need to be able to conduct a search. For example, if they can see drugs, illegal weapons or alcohol just by looking through your car’s windows, then they’re not violating your rights if they ask you to step out of the car so they can search it.
The Constitution serves an essential function in our society. It’s important to understand your rights, so that you can invoke them when necessary.