What All Drivers Need to Know About Traffic Stop Searches

a man pulled over by a police officer

A traffic stop usually concludes with the police officer issuing the driver a citation for a traffic violation and the driver driving away irritated. However, a police officer might sometimes prolong the detention and search the vehicle of the driver. Could police officers really do this, and more importantly, is it legal?

Vehicle Searches Following an Arrest

A police officer who gives you a citation, but doesn’t have a probable cause to suspect that you’re dangerous, carrying a deadly weapon, or are involved or committing a criminal activity (aside from the traffic violation you were stopped for) usually can’t search you or your vehicle.

Take note that in most states, however, a police officer is legally allowed to arrest drivers for committing a minor traffic infraction — like not wearing a seatbelt or speeding. In these cases, Matthew Jube, Attorney at Law and other prominent criminal defense attorneys in Provo explain that the validity of an ensuing search would depend on the specific circumstances surrounding the arrest.

A police officer might inspect the vehicle’s passenger compartment if it looks like the offender is trying to access their vehicle during the search (suspiciously), or if the vehicle contains the following:

  • Weapons
  • Proof relevant to the traffic stop
  • Items that were unlawfully possessed, like tools for burglary or contraband
  • Some way to escape

Do note, however, that the search should be restricted to areas that could contain the items the police officer is expecting to find.

To illustrate, if you were arrested because you were driving with a suspended driver’s license and then the officer handcuffed and locked you inside their patrol car, they don’t have a legal ground to search your vehicle. This is due to the fact that you couldn’t possibly get to your vehicle if they search it, nor could the officer justifiably expect to see proof of your criminal activity, which is merely driving your vehicle while your license is suspended.

The most important thing to know about consent with regard to vehicle searches is that you’re not legally obliged to give in to a police officer who requests for it. Commonly, police officers leverage the consent of drivers to conduct searches that would’ve otherwise been unlawful.