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When can the police search my car?

On Behalf of | May 13, 2024 | Criminal Defense

 Many Virginia residents have been pulled over by a police officer at some time. Ideally, your traffic stop involves nothing more than providing the officers with some basic information and documents, receiving a warning or traffic citation and being on your way.

However, sometimes a traffic stop turns into more. Officers might ask to search your vehicle. But how does this happen and why?

Reasonable articulable suspicion and probable cause

Police officers need reasonable articulable suspicion to pull you over. Gross v. Commonwealth, 79 Va. App. 530, 536 (2024). This means they must see something that suspects them of believing you have committed a crime or traffic violation, such as speeding or failing to use a turn signal.

Once they have pulled you over, they cannot search your vehicle without your consent unless they have probable cause or reasonable articulable suspicion to conduct a protective sweep

Probable cause means that the officers have trustworthy facts or the circumstances would indicate to a reasonable person that a crime was committed and that evidence of that crime exists in your vehicle.

An officer may also conduct a protective sweep of the vehicle for weapons if “the police officer possesses a reasonable belief based on ‘specific and articulable facts, which, taken together with the rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant’ the officers in believing that the suspect is dangerous and the suspect may gain immediate control of weapons”. Gross, 79 Va. App at 536.

A common example is when police officers pull someone over for a traffic violation and see drugs or a weapon sitting in plain sight on a seat in the vehicle This situation likely provides the officers with the probable cause or reasonable articulable suspicion necessary to search the vehicle because they believe evidence of a drug crime will be found inside.

When you consent to a search

Police do not need probable cause or reasonable articulable suspicion if you consent to a search of your vehicle. They might simply ask you if they can search you or your vehicle, and if you say yes, they may search.

Remember that you have a right to say no to a vehicle search. The police generally cannot penalize you for saying no.

When probable cause or reasonable articulable suspicion results in a search of your vehicle and that search results in your arrest, you continue to have legal rights. Some of these include the right to remain silent and not answer any of the officers’ additional questions. If any of your rights are violated, this could be a defense to a criminal charge.