Can I refuse to let a police officer search my car during a traffic stop?

QUESTION:

A cop pulled me over for running a red light, and then he searched me and my car. He didn't find anything, but I felt humiliated and violated by the whole thing. Was he allowed to do this? Could I have said no?

ANSWER:

A traffic stop is normally just that. If the officer issues you a citation and has no basis to suspect that you are armed and dangerous or involved in criminal activity, the officer cannot search you or your car. Of course, if the officer does see something suspicious, then the law allows the officer to do a "pat-down" search of you and of the passenger compartment of your car. The police officer can also "frisk" (feel the outside of) any purses, bags, or other things in the car that could hold a weapon. But, if you allow the officer to search you or your car, then the search will normally be considered valid -- even if there were no solid reasons behind the officer's request. Many people don't realize that they can refuse a search. But, as you no doubt know, it's not easy to say "no" to someone who is wearing a gun and scary reflective glasses.

Be aware, however, that laws in many states authorize police officers to arrest drivers for minor traffic offenses, such as speeding or failure to wear a seat belt. If a police officer does choose to arrest a driver, then the officer can conduct a search.

© 2009 Nolo

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