Daniel J. Wright
Car Stops and Searches
- This has never happened to me, but what if the police officer stops you and wants to search your car? Are you required to let him? If the officer ASKS you if he can search your car, the answer is that you are allowed to say NO. He normally won’t ask if he has the right. However, if you are driving and pulled over, and for example, the officer smells the odor of drugs, then he has the right to search your car.
- What happens if you refuse to allow the officer to search your car? There is no penalty. The court would never hold it against you. Let’s remember, we have a Constitution that says searches cannot be “unreasonable” and the Constitution is the law of the land. The police need a reason to search your car. They can’t just do it because of age, or race, or nationality.
- What happens if I consent to a search? Then anything that the police officer finds in the car can be used against you in a court of law. Now, in your case I know all the policeman would find are a bunch of accounting books! But many people – such as young people – give rides to people and someone might leave something in the back seat and forget about it. Maybe a bottle of beer or wine that is opened. This can come back to haunt the driver. In other words, you might not know what is in your car.
- Are the police allowed to have a dog sniff your car? Generally, yes if they get the dog there in a reasonable period of time. They are not allowed to prolong the stop in order to get a dog to the scene if they have no reason to suspect drugs are in the car. However, if they get the dog to the scene before the officer has completed the paperwork for the traffic stop they can have the dog walk around the outside of the car without violating your rights.
- What is the best strategy when the police pull you over? Have your license and registration ready. Be polite and cooperative with the officer. Don’t show anger, even if you feel it. If the officer asks for permission to search your car, politely say NO. You are simply exercising your Constitutional rights. Our soldiers fought and died for those rights: you should not be reluctant to assert them.
- What if the officer decides to search the car anyway? Normally, if the officer decides that he has the right to search a car he will ask the driver and passenger to step outside. This is his right, for purposes of officer safety among other things. You shouldn’t resist this. If he wants you to step out, you should step out. At this point, he may or may not have a right to give you a brief “pat down” of your outer garments for weapons. In any case, if he searches the car without legal authority to do so there can be legal consequences in court.
- How often does this happen? You would be surprised. In some parts of our community, such as among my friends – almost never. What we’ve talked about is completely foreign to their experience. However, in other parts of the community, it happens a lot.
- Can a policeman stop you for no reason, say for a “routine check”?No, we don’t have “routine checks” in the United States. That’s part of our Constitution. The police need reasonable suspicion that something illegal is going on before they can stop you. They can approach a person on foot and try to engage you in conversation – that is voluntary – but they cannot stop you. If you don’t want to talk, you can keep on walking.