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When Are Vehicle Searches Legal?

Usually when a traffic stop is initiated for a moving violation, expired registration, or a broken taillight, it ends with a warning or a citation and the rattled motorist drives away when it’s over. Occasionally something in the vehicle will catch the officer’s eye, and what follows is a prolonged traffic stop and a vehicle search.

When you are pulled over on a routine traffic stop, the officer doesn’t normally have the right to search your vehicle unless he or she has “probable cause” to believe you have engaged in criminal activity. However, the laws regarding vehicle searches can be vague. If you’re arrested for driving while intoxicated (DWI) or for having an open container of alcohol, or because the officer saw drug paraphernalia in your vehicle, a subsequent search may follow. But, is it legal? It depends on the circumstances.

When a Search is Reasonable

Suppose you’re arrested because your vehicle smelled strongly of marijuana when you rolled down the window. Or, perhaps you had an open bottle of whisky in the cup holder and the officer saw it. Either way, you were arrested. Once you’re arrested, the police have the right to search your vehicle if they have reason to believe: 1) your vehicle contains weapons, 2) there are drugs or alcohol in the vehicle, 3) you have stolen property, or 4) your vehicle contains evidence from a crime or the traffic stop.

Let’s say you were pulled over for expired tags, but the officers discovered you were driving on a suspended license and they initiated an arrest. In this case, the officers would have no reason to search your vehicle. Assuming they cannot see any drug or alcohol-related items in plain view, the officers cannot reasonably expect to find evidence of your crime, driving on a suspended license.

Even if you are not arrested, if an officer sees, hears, or smells something that could indicate you committed a crime, the officer will probably search your vehicle. Additionally, if you’re pulled over and you’re arrested and frisked, and the officers find illegal items on your person, what’s likely to follow is a vehicle search.

You Don’t Have to Give Consent

If an officer asks for your permission to search a vehicle, you are under no obligation to say “yes.” Often, officers will ask for consent to search a vehicle when it would be illegal otherwise. Of course, it’s easier said than done. It can be hard for people to say “no” when they’re standing before an intimidating police officer.

Facing criminal charges? Contact our firm to meet with an experienced Plano criminal defense attorney. We are on your side!