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When can the police search your vehicle?

Let’s say you travel some place where marijuana is legal and enjoy some. Then back in Indiana, you’re speeding along the highway when you suddenly see a patrol car’s take-down lights start flashing. Suddenly, you remember that you still have some weed in the car. What might happen?

The first thing would be to pull over and wait for the officer. But after that? Could you be arrested for marijuana possession? If so, you could find yourself in big trouble. Weed is still illegal here. Depending on the amount in your possession, you could be looking at misdemeanor charges—or a felony. But there might not be any reason to worry.

Officers cannot search your vehicle without a legal reason

Even if you’re pulled over with drugs in the car, you might not end up facing charges. There’s no guarantee the officer will even have reason to search for them. To search your vehicle, officers generally need either:

  • A warrant
  • Your permission
  • Probable cause

It’s highly unlikely that an officer would have a warrant to search your vehicle after a routine traffic stop. It’s far more likely the officer would either ask for your permission or claim they had probable cause to conduct a search.

You don’t have to give an officer permission to search your vehicle. If an officer asks, you can say, “No.” But you shouldn’t try to interfere. That might lead to a tense and dangerous situation. Instead, if an officer searches your vehicle anyway, you can politely repeat that you did not give your permission.

This leads us to the idea of probable cause. What counts as probable cause for an officer to search your vehicle? For starters, officers need to have more than just a “hunch.” They don’t need enough evidence to prove someone guilty. But they do need, according to an Indiana Court of Appeals, to be able to point to enough evidence to convince “a person of reasonable caution that an offense has been committed.”

Generally, this means:

  • Drugs lying in plain sight
  • The odor of drugs
  • Paraphernalia

Other similar evidence might also lead to probable cause.

Why does it matter?

Officers need to follow the rules. When they don’t, they may contaminate their case. If a defense attorney can show the officer conducted the search without probable cause, they might be able to suppress the evidence. And any follow-up charges or evidence might also be tossed out.

At Kammen & Moudy, our attorneys are committed to making sure the law works for everyone. We work hard to make sure that officers follow the rules and that, if they don’t, they are held accountable.

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