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When can the police search your vehicle during a traffic stop?

On Behalf of | Nov 26, 2021 | Criminal Defense

When the police pull you over for a traffic stop, you typically only have to worry about some minor issue. Perhaps a brake light burned out or you failed to use your turn signal. The police officer might issue you a warning or write you a ticket. You can then go on your way.

Sometimes police officers conducting a traffic stop will drastically extend the process by searching the vehicle. If they find anything questionable, ranging from possible drug paraphernalia to a knife with an illegal blade length, they might arrest the driver of the vehicle.

When can the police search your vehicle as part of a traffic stop in California?

When you give them permission

Perhaps the most common reason that police officers have to search a vehicle is that the driver allowed them to do so. Oftentimes police simply ask for permission and the driver grants it. Police officers even receive special training in many cases to help them better trick drivers into waiving their rights regarding a vehicle search.

Drivers, often unaware that they have the right to refuse and hoping to seem cooperative, will agree to a search. They don’t stop to think about how they could be held accountable for anything the police officer finds that may have been left behind by a passenger or even a previous owner. If an officer asks for permission, they probably wouldn’t be able to search without consent. 

When they have probable cause

Sometimes, something a driver says or does, or something the police officer notices during the traffic stop will provide probable cause to believe a crime has occurred or is in progress. Smelling drugs or seeing an open beer can could be probable cause to search a vehicle for evidence of criminal activity.

When a judge issues a warrant

Sometimes, when an officer has neither probable cause nor your permission, they still want to search your vehicle. In that case, the officer will have to convince a judge that a warrant is necessary.

All too often, police officers get permission to search a vehicle directly from the driver or develop probable cause because of how the driver acts. Knowing your rights can help you minimize the risk of getting arrested and charged with a crime during a traffic stop.