People who are pulled over by the police often wonder exactly what rights they have. One thing that many people wonder is exactly when police officers can search a vehicle after a stop. The simple answer to this is that they can search your vehicle if they have “probable cause.”
Some people mistakenly think that the officers need a warrant to conduct a search on a vehicle, but this isn’t true. The police can ask you for your permission to search the car and lawfully conduct that search if you consent, but there are also other circumstances in which they can legally initiate a search.
Any indication of criminal activity can be considered probable cause for a search. For example, if the police see a weapon or drugs visible under the jacket on your front seat, they don’t need your permission or a warrant to start searching. They also don’t need a warrant or permission if someone in the vehicle is on probation or parole because the terms of those programs allow them to search at will. They can also search your car if they have reason to believe that there is something that could cause them harm in the vehicle. It’s also possible if you’re arrested and they’re gathering evidence or looking for things related to your arrest.
Courts have determined that people who are in vehicles have a lower expectation for privacy than they would have at their own home. This is why the restrictions on the police are much lower when it comes to vehicle searches. Still, it’s possible that a search of a vehicle could be a violation of your rights, which could play a role in your criminal defense strategy. For this reason, you should let your attorney know if there is a reason to think that there was a violation of your rights.