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When can a police officer search your vehicle?

You see the red and blue lights flashing in your rear-view mirror. You pull off to the side of the road and an officer walks up to your window. After the officer verifies your license and insurance, they ask if they can search your vehicle. You freeze. You don’t know what to say or what your rights are. What happens if you say no? Can they search your vehicle anyway? Here are five ways that an officer can legally search your vehicle.

 

1) The driver consents to the search.

The police officer may ask, “Do you mind if I search your vehicle?” This can be a trick question. The officer is asking if the driver minds if they perform a search. Yet, the phrasing of the question can lead to unintended consent to a search. For example, responding “yes” to the officer’s question can indicate that the driver does mind if the officer searches the vehicle. But responding “yes” can also be interpreted as consent to search the car. The right to remain silent is also an option, or a driver can clarify if their answer is consent to a search or not.

2) The officer has probable cause.

The officer may search your vehicle if they have probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed. Something in plain sight can give the officer probable cause to search your vehicle. The reasonability of a search is something determined by a judge.

3) The officer fears for their safety.

If an officer suspects that there is a weapon in the vehicle, they may search the vehicle because they believe their safety is in jeopardy.

4) The officer has a search warrant.

The officer may search a vehicle if they present the driver with a search warrant signed by a judge.

5) The driver is under arrest and the search is related to the arrest.

If the driver of the vehicle is arrested, the officer may search his or her vehicle if it is related to the arrest. For example, if a driver has been charged with DUI, the officer may search the vehicle for narcotics or alcohol.

But what if the officer says they smell marijuana in your car? Now, here is one example in which a police officer in Colorado cannot search your car. Put simply, the officer cannot search your vehicle just because they say they smell cannabis.

The smell of marijuana is not reasonable grounds for a search

A recent ruling in July by the Colorado Court of Appeals stated that the smell of marijuana alone is not reasonable grounds to search a vehicle without the driver’s consent. Therefore, if a driver is pulled over and the police officer conducts a search of the vehicle solely because they say they smell marijuana, the search can be challenged as unlawful in court.

Don’t feel powerless if you’re being pulled over. Knowing the law on search and seizure can help you prevent a typical traffic stop from turning into an inadvertent search of your vehicle.

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