U.S. Law Basics: How Do I Keep the Police from Searching My Car?

by Flex Your Rights - July 8, 2010

(content for this article is used under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License)

 

A traffic stop can be stressful and terrifying -- especially if you're not prepared. These rules will help protect your rights and improve your odds of driving away safely.

Always Be Calm & Cool

If police flag you down, pull over immediately, turn off your car, and place your hands on the wheel. Police like to see your hands for their own safety -- so wait until they request your paperwork before reaching for it. At night, it's also a good idea to turn on the dome light, so the officer can see you're not armed.

Always greet policemen and policewomen as "Officer". For example, you may start off with "Good afternoon, Officer. How's it going today?" Under no circumstances should you ever talk back, raise your voice, or use profanity with a police officer. Being hostile with police is stupid and dangerous. You can't win that game.

If the officer writes you a ticket, accept it quietly and never complain. Listen to any instruction on paying the fine or contesting the ticket, and drive away slowly.

Remain Silent

Police may try to get you to admit to having broken a law. For example, an officer may ask, "Do you know how fast you were going?"

You may assert your 5th Amendment protection against self-incrimination by refusing to admit you might have broken a law. As such, the best answer to that and similar questions is "No, Officer."

Because anything you say can and will be used against you in court, the less you say the better. You also don't want to announce to police that you know your rights. They'll take that as a challenge. Just keep quiet and calm.

You Have the Right to Refuse Search Requests

Police may order the driver and any passengers out of the vehicle. If this happens, step out of the car. If they have reasonable suspicion to detain you, police may frisk the outside of your clothing to check for weapons, but only if they have a basis for suspecting you're armed.

If police detain and frisk you, you have the right to clearly state your refusal to consent to the search. For example, you may say "Officer, I'm not resisting. I do not consent to this search." But you should only verbally refuse. Never physically resist. Just touching an officer could get you tasered or beaten. You could also get a felony charge for assaulting a police officer.

Whether or not they frisk you, an officer may ask you a series of questions, which may include something like "You don't mind if I have a look in your car?" While this might sound like a command, it's usually a request -- and the 4th Amendment protects your right to refuse search requests. (See also "When are police allowed to search my car?"

In response to such request, you may politely decline by saying "Officer, I know you're just doing your job, but I don't consent to searches." Some officers may use their authority to make you feel obligated to prove your innocence by asking "What do you have to hide?" Don't fall for such tricks. If necessary, repeat your refusal.

Refusing a search request is not an admission of guilt and does not give the officer the legal right to search or detain you. In fact, most avoidable police searches don't occur because police have probable cause. They occur because people get tricked or intimidated into consenting to search requests.

The 4th Amendment protects your right to refuse search requests, but you must clearly state your refusal for the protection to legally apply.

What if I refuse a search, but police search me anyway?

Unfortunately police sometimes search you even if you refuse consent. If they find anything illegal and you're arrested, you’ll have to get a lawyer and fight it out in court.

If the officer convinces the judge that there was probable cause to search without your consent, then the evidence will be admissible in court. If your lawyer convinces the judge that there was no probable cause, then the evidence will be thrown out and your charges will be dismissed.

Every case is unique, so it’s hard for us to tell you how good your chances are in your particular case. Your attorney should be able to tell you what to expect from the judges in your area.

If you're searched illegally and nothing is found, you may consider taking legal action or at least filing a complaint. Local attorneys, as well as your local ACLU and NAACP chapters may be able to help you.

Determine if You're Free to Go

Unless you're detained or arrested, you may terminate the encounter anytime. But don't wait for the officer to dismiss you. Ask if you're free to go.

For example, if an officer threatens to call in a K-9 unit if you refuse a search, you should ask "Officer, are you detaining me, or am I free to go?"

Not only can this line can help withdraw you from an encounter, it also deflects any of the officer's probing questions or threats. So if an officer says "If you cooperate with me, everything will go easy for you." You may respond by saying either "Officer, I don't consent to any searches" or "Officer, am I free to go?"

If the officer lets you leave, do so immediately. If the officer's answer is unclear, or if he asks additional questions, persist by repeating "Officer, am I free to go?"

Ask for a Lawyer

If you are not free to go, you are being detained. The officer might have some reason to suspect you of a crime, and you may be arrested.

In such a situation, your magic words are "I'm going to remain silent. I would like to see a lawyer." These magic words are like a legal condom. They're your best protection if you're under arrest.

Never rely on police to inform you of your right to remain silent and see a lawyer. Repeat the magic words as necessary, but say no more. Remember that anything you say can and will be used against you in court.