Police officers generally need reasonable suspicion that an individual in the vehicle has violated the law to justify pulling a vehicle over. Reasonable suspicion alone, however, does not automatically give the officer the power to search the vehicle.

An officer cannot search your car if he stops you for a moving violation unless he has probable cause to conduct a search of the car, or unless the driver consents to a search.

Probable cause for such a search may be supported by the officer’s initial reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, but more suspicion is needed before a search can be conducted. For example, an officer’s suspicion may be heightened by:

  • The officer’s personal observations
  • Another officer’s observations
  • An informant’s tip
  • Information that the driver or a passenger volunteers to the officer

It is important to note that this search is limited to the compartment of the car where probable cause exists. Therefore, if an officer has specific, articulable facts and a reasonable belief that evidence of a crime will be found in the trunk, that officer may only search the trunk. Likewise, if an officer pulls you over and then his suspicions rise to a level of probable cause that evidence of a crime may be found in the passenger compartment, that officer may not search your trunk without

Examples of Probable Cause

Officers make an on-the-scene assessment if probable cause exists to search your car, so whether a search is permitted will depend on the facts of your situation. For instance, if an officer sees you throw an empty beer can out of the window, it may be sufficient probable cause to justify a search of your car. Also, if the officer smells marijuana as he approaches the car, then he may have probable cause to search.

Can an Officer Search Passengers?

The rules surrounding the search of passengers in a car stopped for a moving violation are similar to the rules surrounding the driver. That is, if the officer has a specific, articulable suspicion that the passenger may be involved in criminal activity, the passenger can probably be searched.

For example, if the officer notices the passenger bends over and hides something under the seat, and the car smells like marijuana when the officer approaches, the passenger may be searched.

What Is the “Hot Pursuit” Exception?

The "hot pursuit" exception allows an officer to conduct a warrantless inventory search of an automobile following a high-speed chase. In this situation, an officer can legally search your car after he pulls you over, even if he does not have a basis for probable cause that is separate from the fact that you were simply being pursued in a high-speed chase.

Should I Contact An Attorney?

If an officer searches your car after pulling you over for a traffic violation and you feel he did not have probable cause for the search, then you should consult an attorney. An experienced criminal law attorney will advise you of your rights about bringing a lawsuit against the police department. Also, if incriminating evidence was seized from your vehicle, an attorney may be able to suppress the evidence obtained during such an illegal search so that it cannot be used against you at trial.