If a police officer asks, “May I search your vehicle?” your answer should be a polite, but firm, “No.” Even if you have nothing to hide. There is no good reason to voluntarily allow a law enforcement officer to search your vehicle. If you are thinking that allowing the search will make you look “cooperative” and that the officer will let you off with a warning, think again. Many police officers make up their minds to write a traffic citation before they approach your vehicle. Therefore, you really won’t be doing yourself any favors by saying “yes” to the search. However, you could be inviting the police to find trouble that you otherwise never could have anticipated.
Why Not? I Have Nothing to Hide!
Even if you believe you have nothing to hide, there could be items lurking in your car that you may not be aware of that could get you into trouble. For example, I represented a client last year who had consented to a search after being pulled over for speeding. The officer found a hydrocodone pill in his center console. The medication had been legally prescribed by a doctor. However, my client did not have the pill bottle or a copy of the prescription with him. As a result, instead of just getting a traffic citation, my client was led away in handcuffs and charged with felony possession of a controlled substance. The charge was ultimately dismissed because I was able to show that he had a legal prescription for the pill, but not until after my client had endured the hassle and expense of being arrested, booked, hiring an attorney, and going to court to clear his name.
You Think You Know What’s In Your Car, But Maybe You Don’t
As bad as my client’s experience was, imagine how much worse it could have been. What if a friend had previously been in the car, and a loose ecstasy pill had fallen out of their pocket and rolled under the seat, forgotten and unknown to anyone until discovered by the officer? The presence of that pill in my client’s vehicle would have been enough evidence for him to be charged with possession of a controlled substance. That case would have been much more difficult to defend. Unless the friend stepped forward to claim the pill (highly unlikely to say the least), those charges would not have been dropped. Under those circumstances, my client would most likely have faced the equally unattractive choices of accepting a plea deal or taking his chances with a jury trial.
Don’t Give Anyone a Chance to Plant
While I have tremendous respect for law enforcement as a whole, the unfortunate reality is that some officers do resort to unethical tactics like planting evidence. Baltimore police made national headlines earlier this year when body camera footage appeared to show officers planting evidence of drug possession. As a result, dozens of cases were dropped. Unfortunately, there is no way to know whether the officer who pulls you over is a good cop or a bad cop until it is too late. Either way, you don’t want to make their job easier by saying “yes” to an unnecessary search.
Know Your Rights
Law enforcement must have probable cause to search your vehicle, and it is their burden to prove that they had probable cause. However, if you consent to the search, they no longer have to prove that they had probable cause. You are under no obligation to make this easy for them. If an officer asks to search your vehicle, just say “No.” If the officer instructs you to step out of the vehicle and decides to search it anyway, do not resist. Just make sure the officer knows that they do not have permission to conduct the search. If you are arrested as a result of the search conducted without permission, your lawyer may be able to have the evidence thrown out if he can show that there was no probable cause for the search.