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When can the police search my vehicle?

On Behalf of | Feb 5, 2024 | Drug Crimes |

Being pulled over by the police while driving your vehicle is never a pleasant experience. In fact, many people feel extreme anxiety when pulled over while driving, even if they believe they have not done anything wrong.

You may have seen police searching people’s vehicles during traffic stops and wondered what the rules are regarding vehicle searches. Many Indiana residents do not know their rights when it comes to traffic stops.

The police count on this and the result is often illegal stops, searches and arrests. The truth is that there are laws and regulations that police must follow when pulling drivers over and during a traffic stop.

Reasonable suspicion

One law is the requirement of reasonable suspicion before pulling a vehicle over. The police cannot pull you over for no reason or for a reason that has nothing to do with traffic laws, such as the color of your skin.

Reasonable suspicion means that the police must have observed something that gives them reason to believe you are breaking the law. If they see you change lanes without using a turn signal or going 10 miles per hour over the speed limit, that typically gives them reasonable suspicion.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects you from unreasonable searches and seizures of your vehicle. This includes searches of your vehicle during a traffic stop.

Probable cause

However, once you are pulled over, police can search your vehicle if they have probable cause. There is no universal definition of probable cause but it generally means that police must have a reasonable basis for believing that evidence of a crime is in your vehicle.

There are various events that could provide probable cause. One of the most common is the “plain view” doctrine. This means if the police see evidence of a crime, such as drugs sitting on your passenger seat, in plain view, this could give them probable cause to search your vehicle.

The plain view doctrine applies to all senses, including hearing and smell. This is one reason that you must be careful about what you say to the police. You could say something that gives them probable cause to perform a search.

In addition to probable cause, the police can search your vehicle if you are otherwise lawfully arrested or if you give them permission to search.

For example, if you are speeding and get pulled over and the police officers run your driver’s license and learn you have an outstanding arrest warrant for a prior crime, they can legally arrest you. This arrest also gives them permission to search your vehicle.

How to act when you are pulled over

It is best to say nothing to the police when you are pulled over except for your name, if asked. You should also stay still. Do not move around, change seats or get out of your vehicle.

You should keep your hands on the steering wheel. If you are the passenger, keep the on your lap or where the police officers can see them.

When you are arrested due to evidence found during a search of your vehicle, it is important to know if the search was legal. This protects your rights and can help you defend yourself against any future criminal charges that come from the arrest.