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When can police search your vehicle?

We have all seen that Cops or Live PD episode where the police fetch a drug sniffing dog and the dogs “hits” on the car.

So the police search the car.

But what is the truth? When can police officers search your vehicle?

Here’s the deal, shows like Live PD are often misleading.

And, the truth may surprise you…

If you want to learn the tricks cops use to get you to consent. And when they can search your vehicle. Then keep reading.

When can cops search your vehicle?

The simple answer is police officers need probable cause or your consent to search. If they have neither and search your car, the evidence may be suppressed in court.

Like your home, police officers must have probable cause to search your vehicle. As a result, your 4th amendment rights still stand.

Yet, most searches are the result of the drivers consent.

Police officers use several methods to “trick” you into consenting to a search.

We will see those in a moment, but first…

When can police search your vehicle
“An officer may conduct a traffic stop if he has reasonable suspicion that a traffic violation has occurred or that criminal activity is afoot.”

Traffic Stop Searches Probable Cause and Consent

“An officer may conduct a traffic stop if he has reasonable suspicion that a traffic violation has occurred or that criminal activity is afoot.”
Berekmer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420 (1984).

When you are pulled over for a traffic violation i.e broken taillight, speeding, running a stop sign etc. The police need probable cause, a very good reason to search your car. Or your consent.

So, what does that probable cause look like? Let’s find out.

Probable Cause to Search Your Vehicle

“Where there is probable cause to believe that a vehicle contains evidence of a criminal activity, an officer may lawfully search any area of the vehicle in which the evidence might be found.”
Arizona v. Gant, 129 S. Ct. 1710 (2009),

Without your consent, a police officer will need probable cause to search your vehicle.

Probable cause includes but is not limited to suspecting that you:

But it doesn’t end there. Police may, for example search your glove box if they suspect there is a weapon.

However, the most common method police use to search your car is consent.

Methods Police Use to Obtain Consent To Search Your Vehicle.

Oftentimes police officers don’t have a probable cause to search your automobile. So they will often use your consent voluntary or involuntary to do so. As a result, police officers may try to trick you into consenting to a search.

They have several methods of doing so.

Method 1: Bargaining

A police officer may bargain with you to get you to consent.

“If you let me search your car, I will let you off with a warning”

Although this may work out if you don’t have anything. Bare in mind that police officers can lie.

Method 2: Coercion

Look, when you are in handcuffs and a police officer puts you on the spot. It can be easy to get cohered into giving consent. There are nearly infinite methods that police officers can use to do this.

That is why it is important to always be mindful and verbally express that you do not consent to searches.

Even if the police use involuntary consent to search your vehicle, your lawyer may be able to help you.

Method 3: We’ll Bring in the Dogs

This one is my favorite. In fact, it’s the reason that I decided to write this article.

While watching a clip of a man being detained for a busted headlight, and waiting for the search dog to come.

I had to wonder is this legal? And it turns out, not exactly.

It’s true, people aren’t aware of their own rights.

According to Flex Your Rights it is always important to ask:

“Am I free to go?”


“Am I being detained?”

Asking am I being detained shows that the detainment is involuntary. And the above clip shows just why this is so important!

Police can not make you wait to allow a dog to sniff your vehicle.

If the police suspect no crime, and there are no dogs on scene.

They can not require you to wait for dogs to arrive without your consent.

If they had probable cause to search your vehicle, they wouldn’t need the dogs.

According to the current supreme court ruling Illinois v. Caballes the police may not use a dog to sniff your vehicle if it prolongs the traffic stop.

If you have received a traffic ticket, the officer can NOT make you wait for a drug sniffing dog to arrive on scene.

However, according to Illinois v. Caballes, a drug dog may sniff your car as part of a routine stop if it DOES NOT, extend the time required to write a ticket for the initial offense.

Of course, this leads to a bit of debate over how long the stop would have taken etc. And it will likely lead to future cases.

However, the bottom line is that you are not required to wait for drug dogs to arrive on scene, as long as you don’t consent to doing so.

If you don’t ask if you are free to go while the dogs are en route, this may be construed as consent.

Final note: Not consenting doesn’t mean they won’t search anyway

Simply put, even though you tell an officer you don’t consent, he may still search your car. Even if he has no probable cause.

Police don’t always follow the law.

However, by simply vocalizing that you do not consent. This may be enough for your attorney or public defender to suppress the evidence.

At the End of The Day

Many vehicle searches are conducted as a result of consent, and not actually the result of probable cause.

By informing yourself of your rights you can avoid bigger problems down the road.

In my experiences it is always best to be calm, and talk with an officer as a person. However, if you don’t express your rights you may not be able to enforce them latter.

In many circumstances, I have found officers will cut you a break simply because you are aware of the law and your rights.

Knowing your rights is the only way to enforce them.

Need a lawyer near you?

Virginia Beach, VA

Elizabeth City, NC


Chesapeake, VA

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