Vehicle Searches During Stops for Minor Traffic Violations

May 05th, 2019 | by Scott C. Thomas, Orange County Criminal Law Attorney

I know I have touched on this issue before in previous blog posts, but the one questions clients and friends always ask me is “Do I have to let the police search my car when they ask?” Are vehicle searches during stops for minor traffic violations allowed?  The simple answer is a resounding NO!

Even during vehicle stops for minor traffic violations, it is not uncommon for officers to ask the stopped motorist for permission to search their car. Why do they do this? Well, it really comes down to the shift from American law enforcement being “peace officers,” and transitioning into “police officers.” The change may seem to be nothing more than semantics, but in practice, the consequences are far-reaching. Instead of being tasked with maintaining public order (i.e. peace officer), police now actively seek out crimes for the sake of seeking out crimes. That is to say, any opportunity a police officer has to look for criminal conduct, they will seize upon it.

Going back to the vehicle stop for a traffic violation, this trend is put into sharp focus. Instead of merely citing the offender and letting him or her go on their way, police officers use the traffic violation as a means of “getting their foot in the front door” for further investigation of any unrelated criminal conduct.

Most people, when confronted by a police officer who wishes to search their car, bow to the power of the badge and acquiesce for a multitude of reasons; maybe they have nothing to hide but are intimidated by the badge, or maybe they have something to hide and think cooperation will be their ticket to freedom, or maybe they just don’t know their rights. In any case, there is no reason to ever say yes to a police officer who wishes to search your car.

I say this because, regardless of your answer, if the police have probable cause to search your vehicle, they are going to search your vehicle. End of story. This is why it is smart to refuse consent to search; if the cops are asking for your consent, they probably do not have probable cause to search your car, and are using intimidation or coercion to gain consent. Remember, it is perfectly legal to refuse an officer’s request to search your car.

I hope this helps to flesh out this issue, and remember, the best answer, when a cop asks to search you or your vehicle, is NO!

Scott C. Thomas

Law Office of Scott C. Thomas
(949) 945-2085

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