Being pulled over is a scary experience. In many cases, the interaction between the driver and officer is very brief. A police officer may just issue a warning or a citation, and the driver is free to go.

In other cases, the situation is much more serious, and the officer may tell the driver they want to search the car. When this is the case, it is important to remain calm and know what to do so you do not forfeit your rights.

A common question we receive at Ludlum Law Firm is, “When should I refuse consent for an officer to search my car?”  The answer is “always.” The Fourth Amendment right not to be subjected to unreasonable search and seizures requires probable cause for an officer to search your car without a warrant during a traffic stop.  Keep reading to find out what you need to do if an officer wants to search your car.

What is probable cause?

Probable cause means that an officer must reasonably believe that a crime has been committed. Probable cause may be established if an officer sees in plain view an illegal weapon, alcohol, drugs, smells marijuana or, if a certified K9 alerts as to the presence of drugs. But without probable cause or a warrant, an officer cannot search your vehicle without consent.

Many people say that there is no reason to refuse consent if you have nothing to hide. But even innocent people should think twice before giving consent to search their vehicle. Remember, you are not penalized for refusing consent, but once you give it, you may lose valuable rights to challenge the search results that could lead to a criminal conviction.

Refusing consent.

You never know what a passenger has placed in your car or a bag in your vehicle. If illegal drugs or contraband are located in a bag that belongs to a passenger in your vehicle, there is a real possibility that you will be charged with possession even though you may not have known it was in your car. Also, it is possible that after loaning your car to a friend or family member, some form of illegal substance or weapon could get left in your vehicle and found after you give consent to search because “you had nothing to hide.”

Another reason to refuse consent to search is that it is not uncommon for vehicles to be damaged after a thorough search by removing interior panels, carpeting, and dashboard.

Also, having to stand on the side of the road while multiple officers search your vehicle can damage your reputation in the community.  Anyone who witnesses the search will automatically assume that you are involved in some form of illegal activity.

Many people consent to searches because they do not want to wait when the officer tells them that they will get a warrant. To get this embarrassing event over with, they consent because, again, “they have nothing to hide.” The truth is that this is typically a bluff and a tactic the officer is using to try and obtain consent because they don’t have probable cause to search.

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How to deal with officers during a potential search.

If an officer asks for consent to search your vehicle, you should always refuse whether or not you have anything to hide. The U.S. Constitution protects you from illegal search and seizures, and this is not a protection that you should surrender casually.

The key is to stay calm and not give the officer any reason to believe that you are nervous or suspicious. You have the right to refuse consent, and exercising this right cannot be held against you. Even though an officer needs clear and unequivocal consent to search your car (State v. Pearson, 348 N.C. 272 (1988)), it is best to be concise and clear when you deny consent, but do it respectfully. A simple “no sir or mam, I do not give consent to search my car” will do.

Ludlum Law Firm can help!

If you find yourself in a situation when an officer is asking for consent to search, and you are not sure what to do, call an attorney.

Also, if you feel that you have been subjected to an illegal search or seizure, contact Ludlum Law Firm to be sure that you get quality and professional representation and that your rights are protected.