When Can The Police Search Your Car For Drugs?

Even if you're not doing anything wrong, the sight of red and blue lights in your rear view mirror can give you a sinking feeling right in the pit of your stomach. If you happen to have drugs in the car—whether they're from a valid prescription, medical marijuana, or something illegal—a traffic stop can be downright terrifying.

Here's what you need to know about car searches by the police.

What does it take to stop a car in the first place?

An officer can't just pull your car over because they decide you look suspicious or out of place. In other words, they need a legitimate reason to stop your car. This is known as "probable cause." Examples of probable cause include things like running a red light, sliding through a stop sign without coming to a full stop, and driving without the proper tags on your license plate. 

Why should you always deny permission to search your car?

Once again, probable cause comes into play. Unless the officer can show that he or she has probable cause to search your car for drugs or has a warrant, your car can't be searched without your consent. That's why you should always tell an officer that you are declining permission to search if they ask to "take a look around" your car.

How can the police get around the need for a search warrant?

There are several different ways that police get around the need for a search warrant (or your permission) to do a search of your car. They include:

  • Noticing something that the officer believes is drugs or drug-related (like a marijuana pipe or a pill bottle) in plain sight 
  • Smelling the odor of drugs, particularly marijuana, on your clothes or from your car
  • Noticing that your behavior or appearance indicates that you are intoxicated or "high" on something 
  • Arresting you for something else, such as an old bench warrant, and then searching your car afterward
  • Claiming that you were witnessed passing drugs to someone else through the window of your car before the stop

This is why attorneys often recommend that you keep your car clean, keep everything you own out of sight, and be cautious in your communications during a traffic stop. You don't want to give the police any more opportunity than you must to build a case for a search.

If you've been arrested and charged with drug possession or drug trafficking, consult with lawyers about your case.