Traffic Stops – Can Police Search Your Car?

Can police search your car during a traffic stop?

Traffic stops and when police can and cannot search your car.  Do you have any defenses if they do finding something illegal and charge you with a crime?  Let’s find out.

Hi, my name is Dale Savage and I’m a criminal defense attorney here in Charleston, SC. Today we’re talking about traffic stops and what you can do if police want to search your car.

The Traffic Stop

For police to conduct a traffic stop they must have reasonable suspicion.  Typically, this is for a minor traffic violation such as speeding.  Reasonable suspicion does not give them the right to search your vehicle, it’s just enough to initiate the stop.

What is Reasonable Suspicion?

Reasonable suspicion = police have a reasonable suspicion supported by articulable facts that a person is involved in criminal activity.  Two important legal points with this legal standard:

  • It is lesser standard than Probable Cause which means you cannot be arrested based on reasonable suspicion (because it is to allow police to briefly detain you to conduct an investigation); &
  • Police cannot search you without an exception (consent).

What can Police Do at a Traffic Stop?

So, what can police do at a traffic stop based on reasonable suspicion?  They can briefly detain you to complete the purpose of the traffic stop (i.e. the investigation).  During this time they can:

  • Ask you for your drivers license, proof of insurance, and registration;
  • Ask you to get out of the vehicle;
  • Pat you down (outer clothing if think armed and/or dangerous)(can’t dive into your pockets);
  • Ask you other questions, but you don’t have to answer them.

What Can’t Police do at a Traffic Stop?

First and foremost, this does not mean they won’t try, but if they do it’s a legal defense.

  • They can’t search your car without your consent – you must tell them no (probable cause);
  • They can’t search your trunk without consent (probable cause);
  • They can’t search you (probable cause)
  • probable cause = some evidence of a crime that is separate from the basis for the traffic stop.  probable cause means that they no longer need your consent and they don’t have to get a search warrant to search your vehicle;
  • If they smell marijuana, that gives them probable cause, if they see in plain view evidence of a crime in your car, that gives them probable cause.

How long can police Detain you?

How long can police detain you for the traffic stop?  Our courts have said:

  • Police can detain you only as long as necessary to conduct the purpose of the traffic stop.
  • Once the purpose of the stop is concluded they must let you go without probable cause or consensual encounter.

What if Police use a K-9

A common tool police use these days are K-9’s.  Our courts have said that running a K-9 around the outside of your vehicle, called a free air sniff, is not a search but there are limits.:

  • Police cannot extend a traffic stop outside the mission of the stop.
  • They can’t wait for a K-9 vehicle to arrive or bring out their own K-9 past the completed traffic stop.

So What Do You Do?

Once you have been given the traffic ticket you ask them “Am I free to leave?”  They may try to avoid answering that question.  If they refuse to let you go then tell them you want a lawyer, this will preserve and protect your rights.

Charleston, SC Criminal Defense Attorney

If have been charged following a traffic stop and want to discuss your options, please call me at (843) 530-7813.  I hope this video was helpful and thanks for watching.

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