Know Your Rights When Police Ask — “Mind If I Search Your Car?”

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According to data compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the U.S. Department of Justice, traffic violations represent one of the most common reasons for contact between police and civilians. Being pulled over for speeding, failing to signal a turn or other type of moving violation usually would not allow police to search your vehicle. Both the U.S. Constitution and the Minnesota Constitution protect you from unreasonable searches by law enforcement. The law defines the circumstances under which police may search your vehicle without violating your rights. It helps to understand your rights when asked to pull over and to know how to respond when an officer asks: “Mind if I search your car?”

Police need justification to stop you

Police cannot stop and detain you without justification. They must act on more than a whim; otherwise, they are violating your rights to be allowed to move about freely and without interference. At the very least, police need reasonable suspicion based upon specific and articulable facts that a crime has been or is being committed in order to stop your vehicle and conduct a further investigation.

For example, if the police see you driving a car with a license plate attached by wire rather than by screws, it would not be unreasonable for them to suspect that the car or the plates may have been stolen and want to question you about it. The Supreme Court of Minnesota upheld such a stop even though affixing a license plate to a vehicle with wire is not a violation of the law. The court reasoned that police, through their training and experience, know that wire may indicate stolen plates, which gave them reasonable suspicion to make the stop.

Limits on what police may do after stopping your vehicle

Simply because the stop was lawful generally does not give law enforcement the right to search you or your car. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Section 10 of the Minnesota Constitution protect you against unreasonable searches and seizures by law enforcement.

The Supreme Court of Minnesota ruled that that searches conducted by police without first obtaining a search warrant from a court are presumed to be unreasonable. However, giving police consent to search you or your car eliminates the requirement to first obtain a warrant.

Obtaining consent to conduct a search

All it takes for police to obtain consent to search your car is for you to answer the following question in the affirmative: “May I search your vehicle?” The officer may need not use the word “search” when asking for consent. For example, “mind if I look in the trunk?” would be enough for police to search the trunk of your car assuming you answered “yes” to the question.

Two factors must exist for the consent given to be a valid waiver of your constitutional rights:

  • It must be voluntary: Consent given in response to threats or coercion by the police make it invalid as being involuntarily given.
  • You must have authority to give it: You must have authority to give the consent. For instance, you as the owner of the car may give consent to its search by police, but a passenger with you in the vehicle when it was stopped may not have the authority to consent to its search.

Another thing to consider about consent searches is that you can limit the search or terminate it. Limiting the search means that you consent to a search of only the trunk or other area of the vehicle. You also have the right to change your mind and ask the police to stop.

Challenging evidence obtained in a vehicle search

The best way to protect your rights when asked by police for permission to search your car is to politely decline to give consent. Asserting your rights can be difficult under the stress and anxiety that may accompany being forced to pull over to the curb by police officers. If you feel compelled to give your consent or the police conduct a search without it, your criminal defense attorney may challenge the search and the evidence seized.

Challenging unlawful searches with motions to suppress the evidence seized by police may result in the prosecution being prohibited from using it to prove the charges filed against you. A consultation and review of the facts surrounding the stop and search by an experienced criminal defense lawyer should be arranged as soon as possible.