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Can You Refuse a Request to Search Your Car During a Traffic Stop?

Being pulled over by the police – even during a routine traffic stop – can be a nerve-wracking experience. Most people are instinctually compliant to officers’ requests when they are pulled over for a possible traffic violation, and it is important to maintain a calm and respectful demeanor during these situations. However, you are not legally obliged to agree to a search of your car if you are pulled over by the police for a traffic violation. It can be intimidating to refuse your consent to a police officer who wants to search your car, but it is important to be aware that refusing an officer’s request is not considered an admission of guilt.

How Your Right Against Illegal Search and Seizure Applies to Traffic Stops

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects people from search and seizure without a warrant asserting probable cause. The Fourth Amendment states:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

In general, your Fourth Amendment right to protection against illegal search and seizure applies to searches of your vehicle, but there are some important differences. For instance, in Wisconsin, an officer need not have a warrant to search your car against your will, but they must have probable cause that you are involved in criminal activity. A traffic violation in and of itself is not sufficient probable cause to search a vehicle. Instead, a police officer must see or smell something in plain sight or plain smell that alerts them to the possibility of criminal activity. Police officers also have the right to pat down your clothing without a warrant if they suspect that you have a weapon.

What if a Police Officer Searches My Car Anyway?

If you refuse consent for a police officer to search your car but a search is conducted anyway, remain calm. You may repeat your refusal to consent to a search, but do not offer any further resistance to the search. Even if a search of your vehicle is conducted against your will, refusing your consent can preserve your rights during any subsequent legal proceeding. If a search was conducted without probable cause, an experienced criminal defense lawyer can help you to file a motion requesting that any incriminating evidence found during the search be suppressed for use at trial on the basis that the evidence was unconstitutionally obtained by law enforcement.

If possible, write down the names, badge numbers, and patrol car numbers of the officers involved in the traffic stop. It may be helpful to also request information from any witnesses to the traffic stop.

If you believe that your Fourth Amendment rights against illegal search and seizure have been violated during the course of a traffic stop, it is critical that you contact a competent criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. At the Law Offices of Christopher J. Cherella, we understand how frightening and violating these situations can feel, and we are committed to helping you defend your constitutional rights in court.

Contact us online or call (414) 882-8382 today to schedule a consultation.