Do you have to consent to a vehicle search during a traffic stop?

Seeing those flashing lights in your rear view mirror can be unsettling for many Illinois drivers. You may start going through the checklist in your mind. Was I speeding? Did I forget to signal my lane change? I didn’t run a stop sign, did I?

In your state of confusion, the officer approaches your vehicle and asks you to step out of the car. He or she then begins asking you questions, including whether it would be okay to search your vehicle. Before you say another word, consider the information below.

What reason does the officer have to search your vehicle?

You may think that you have to comply with this request, but actually, you don’t unless the officer has probable cause. In many cases, if the officer is asking for permission, he or she doesn’t have probable cause and needs your consent. If you consent to the search, anything the officer finds could lead to your arrest.

In order to establish probable cause, the officer must either smell or see something incriminating in plain view. If you admit to committing a crime, it would also provide the officer with probable cause to search your vehicle. Stopping you for a minor traffic violation such as a broken tail light or speeding doesn’t necessarily give a police officer the right to search your vehicle.

How should you respond to a request to search your vehicle?

Unless the officer places you under arrest, you can politely and calmly refuse to consent to the search of your vehicle. At this point, the officer may attempt to either guilt you or intimidate you into complying. You do not have to give up your rights to these tactics.

You may be wondering why you would refuse if you have nothing to hide. You do have the right to consent to the search, but understand that you may be waiving important rights at that point, and anything the officer finds could end up as evidence against you in court.

At this point, if you refuse the search, you may ask the officer if you are free to go. If the officer says you are, then don’t hesitate. Calmly get back into your vehicle and leave. If the officer says that you are not free to go, then you should consider yourself officially detained, and possibly under arrest. You may want to let the officer know that you will remain silent and want to speak to an attorney.