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Can the police search your car without a warrant?

If the police want to search your property, they will generally need a search warrant to do so. But what if they want to search your car during a traffic stop?

If you are pulled over by a police officer and they want to search your vehicle, they only need to have probable cause to legally do the search. A police officer is not allowed to search a car based on a hunch. Probable cause does need to be backed up by evidence that illegal activity is taking place. Examples of evidence that could constitute a search would be the smell of contraband or an officer receives an admission of guilt from someone in the car. It is important to know that any minor traffic violation that was the cause of being pulled over does not fall under probable cause.

What is the fourth amendment?

The fourth amendment protects your privacy from entities both state and federal for searches that are deemed unreasonable. The only time this privacy can be overridden is when someone from law enforcement has a warrant for the search or there is an exigent circumstance that justifies the actions without a warrant. The most common examples of an exigent circumstance would be extreme danger to a child or gathering evidence from a property that is in imminent danger of destruction.

If you are ever pulled over by a police officer, knowing your fourth amendment rights may be helpful to protect yourself from an unlawful search of your car. However, if you want to keep your privacy intact and not fall into the possibility of a police search, here are a few things to keep in mind during the traffic stop.

Try to remain calm and under control

During the traffic stop you should keep your hands on the wheel and turn on the dome light if it is dark. Let the officer speak first and explain the reason for the stop. You do not need to immediately hand over your license and registration until it is asked for. Do not talk back or use profanity and if you receive a ticket, take it and be attentive of instructions the officer may give you.

Remaining silent

Police will sometimes ask questions that can elicit reactions of guilt. One of the most common is usually regarding why they pulled you over. Being silent does not necessarily mean not saying anything, it can mean not providing information that can potentially incriminate you.

You can refuse a request to search

If a police officer ever asks you if they can search your car, you can cordially tell them no. The refusal is best done only verbally, physically blocking the car or the officer is not wise.

Ask if you can go

You do not need to wait for the officer to say you can go but you should ask before trying to leave. If you are not being detained or arrested, there is no need to continue a conversation if your initial obligations with the officer have been met. Simply ask, “am I free to go?”

Privacy is a very important issue and understanding your fourth amendment rights can help you be protected during a traffic stop. If you ever feel that you are a victim of an illegal search that has violated your privacy, you should take steps to report the violation.

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1315 Walnut Street
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Philadelphia, PA 19107

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