No driver likes to see police lights flashing in the rearview mirror. Getting pulled over can make anyone nervous or angry; they might panic and not know what to do. However, what drivers do in the minutes after pulling over can affect their lives for years to come.

Because of this, it is critical to understand your rights when police pull you over. It can be particularly helpful to know whether police can search your vehicle during a traffic stop.

Conducting warrantless searches

The Fourth Amendment protects us against searches and seizures deemed unreasonable. As such, police generally need to have a warrant before searching a person’s car.

That said, they can conduct warrantless searches under various circumstances. If an officer suspects you are involved in criminal activity, this could constitute reasonable suspicion and allow the officer to search the vehicle. Some common examples include smelling drugs or alcohol or seeing drug paraphernalia in plain sight.

Another common way that police can search a car without a warrant is because the driver gives his or her permission. Typically, people do this if they are not sure whether they can refuse or if they think they have nothing to hide.

Protecting yourself during a stop

If police pull you over, try to stay calm. Do not approach officers or resist arrest. If police ask to search your car, you can decline firmly but politely. Officers may use various tactics to get your consent, but you do not have to give permission for a warrantless search.

Challenging a stop

Even after an arrest, you can dispute the legitimacy of a stop and search. Law enforcement agents are human and make poor choices and mistakes like anyone else. You may discover that the stop was flawed from the beginning if the officer had no reason to stop you in the first place.

If police searched your car without consent or probable cause, any evidence they collected during the search could be thrown out.

Despite how common they are, traffic stops can be surprisingly complicated. As such, every element of a traffic stop is worth scrutinizing, especially when it results in drug charges. By knowing your rights and defending yourself, you can protect yourself, your future and your freedom.