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When can Police Search your Vehicle in Washington?

In the United States, privacy and property rights are deeply valued. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution grants each citizen the right to be “secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects” against unreasonable searches and seizures. In order for police officers to search your home or property, they are usually required to present a valid search warrant. However, if you have provoked the curiosity and suspicion of a police officer while driving a car, a search warrant is not needed for the officer to look inside your vehicle. All that is needed is reasonable suspicion, or “probable cause.”

What is probable cause?

To establish probable cause, police must have some kind of evidence to believe you’re involved in criminal activity. Just like police need probable cause to arrest you for suspicion of DUI, police need a reason to search your car. A simple “hunch” of criminal wrongdoing is not enough to place you under arrest. Evidence may include the police officer seeing or smelling an illegal substance in your vehicle. If you panic and admit to another crime, that is also reasonable suspicion. Also, if you consent to a search, it becomes perfectly legal regardless of probable cause.

There are also things that cannot be used to establish probable cause but that police may use to attempt to look inside your car. These can include various types of traffic violations, such as speeding, a non-functioning tail light, or an expired tag.

What can I do to prevent a vehicle search?

When you engage with Washington State Patrol troopers, you should always remain calm, respectful, and vigilant. Whether or not you did any wrong is up to a court to decide amongst a jury of your peers; you will reduce your chances of escalation by addressing the officer as “Officer” and not engaging in any activity that may impede their activity.

The Fourth Amendment gives you the right to deny a search without a warrant, yet police may still search your vehicle. If this happens, it’s important for your attorney to know that you refused the search. In this way, your Washington criminal defense lawyer can challenge the officer’s actions.

If police order you and your passengers to step out of the vehicle, fulfill the request. Don’t make trouble for the police officer, but always understand your rights. Police may try to trick you into answering questions you do not legally need to answer; it is OK to assert your Fifth Amendment right to protect against self-incrimination.

If you have been charged with a criminal offense in Washington that was the result of an illegal search and seizure, attorney Daniel J. Murphy, Jr. can work closely with you to develop a strong case. Call Murphy’s Law Offices at (253) 312-6122 for a free legal consultation.

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506 S. 11th St.
Tacoma, WA 98402
Phone: (253) 312-6122

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