Can the Police Search My Vehicle if I Get Pulled Over for a Traffic Stop?

In most instances, if you are stopped for a minor traffic offense, such as running a red light, speeding or passing a stop sign, the police cannot search your vehicle. A search under these circumstances would be a violation of your constitutional rights.

Can a police officer request to search my vehicle?

Yes, police officers may request to search your car and often ask to do so.  In New York, police cannot ask for consent to search unless they are at a level of reasonable suspicion. This is a lower level of suspicion than probable cause, but must be more than a simple common law right to inquire, based solely on speeding for example.

If the police have this reasonable suspicion, however, you have the absolute right to not allow or consent to the search of your vehicle. The police are under no obligation to inform you of this right. You should always be respectful to the police but insist that you are not agreeing to the search of your vehicle. The police may attempt or repeatedly ask to search the vehicle. Some officers may even tell you that you do not have the right to refuse the search and/or make suggestions that there must be something illegal in the car if you will not allow the search.  Again, it is important to politely decline the search.

If I allow the search of my vehicle and illegal items are found, can those items be used against me?

Yes, if you consent to the search of your vehicle, the items found can be used against you. Your lawyer will argue that you did not provide consent to search the vehicle or understand the rights you were giving up in order to either suppress or preclude the introduction of this evidence at trial.

When can the police search a vehicle that was stopped for a traffic infraction?

Like many areas of the laws, there are exceptions to the general rule.  In this example, police officers are allowed to search a vehicle utilizing the automobile exception when:

  • They observe illegal items in plain view.
  • When they have probable cause or reason to believe the vehicle contains contraband or evidence of a crime.
  • When police believe they are in danger, they are permitted to search the area near the occupants of the vehicle for weapons.
  • They have obtained a warrant permitting the search from a judge.
  • They are performing an inventory search as your vehicle is otherwise being towed or seized.

Can the police search my car if they smell an odor of marijuana?

In New York, the odor of marijuana alone will not provide sufficient probable cause to search a vehicle under recent changes to the law.