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Can the Police Legally Search Your Car?

Whenever I am stopped by a police officer, it is always a stressful experience. It becomes even more so if the officer asks to search my vehicle. If I weren’t a lawyer, I would wonder what my rights are, and whether the police can legally search my car. I now know that the answer depends on the specific circumstances of the situation. It’s important to understand how police searches are conducted and what my rights are when an officer has pulled me over. 

The Fourth Amendment Right Against Unreasonable Search & Seizure

Under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, we have a right against “unreasonable searches and seizures” by law enforcement officers. In order for a search of my vehicle to be considered valid under the law, the police must have “probable cause” to believe that I have committed a crime or that evidence of a crime is present in my vehicle. This means they must have some type of evidence that suggests criminal activity is taking place in order to conduct a legal search of my car.  Probable cause could include anything from seeing drugs or weapons in plain view inside my car, smelling marijuana smoke coming from inside of it, or witnessing suspicious behavior on my part such as attempting to discard something out of my window as I drive past an officer. 

However, even if there is no probable cause for an officer to conduct a full search, they may still do what is known as a “protective sweep” on the exterior portions of the vehicle they are able to access while conducting their stop. This allows them to look for any potential hazards such as weapons before they approach me during their interaction. If an officer requests permission from me (or another person) to do further inspection of my interior, then I can reject this request without repercussions. However, if probable cause does exist for them to perform a full search, then it is within their legal right for them to do so without consenting from me or anyone else involved.  

Consent Searches & Inventory Searches

The two other types of searches which police officers can legally conduct on vehicles are consent searches and inventory searches. Consent searches occur when I voluntarily give permission for my car or items within it (such as my wallet) to be searched by officers without them having probable cause or reasonable suspicion. Since these types require explicit consent from either me or someone else with control, I must make sure to know exactly what type of request is being made before granting access! On top of this, I must keep in mind that once I consent to the officer’s request, they are allowed wide discretion while conducting these sorts of inspections.

Inventory searches occur when police impound vehicles. This allows them to catalog my car’s  contents with accuracy and protect themselves against any false claims later down the line.  

Knowing exactly when can the police legally search your car in Michigan is important information for anyone who drives regularly throughout our state’s roads and highways. While understanding these laws won’t necessarily prevent an officer from searching my car if they find probable cause or reasonable suspicion, at least now I know my rights in the event an officer tries to overstep them. Regardless if the police searched your car legally, if you have been charged with a crime, contact the Law Offices of Bradley J. Friedman for a consultation.

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