If the police pull you over for any reason, it can be a nerve-wracking experience, and even more so if they ask to search your car. Are they simply asking to be polite, and will search your car no matter what your answer is? And can you rightfully say no?
Your Fourth Amendment Rights
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution grants you, among other things, the right to privacy in personal spaces, such as your house and car. This amendment prohibits the police from searching your car arbitrarily or for no reason.
In other words, with certain exceptions, the police generally cannot search your car unless you give them permission. The only times when they can search your car without your permission is if they take you into custody, if they have a valid search warrant or if they have probable cause.
Probable cause is when a police officer has a reasonable suspicion that, by searching your car, they will uncover evidence of a crime. This suspicion must be based on rational evidence, not just a hunch.
For example, let’s say the police saw you swerving erratically across the road, and when they pulled you over they saw that your eyes were red and puffy. That could give them the probable cause they would need to search your car for drugs.
In other words, if the police pull you over for a minor traffic violation and they ask if they can search your car, you do have the right to say no. But if they arrest you, or if they have a rational reason to suspect that there is evidence of a crime in your car, then they can search it even if you say no.
The police serve an essential function in our society and keep us safe every day. But it’s important to know what your constitutional rights are in your interactions with the police, even during a traffic stop.