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What is Reasonable Suspicion to Search My Car?

If a police officer has pulled you over and searched your car, you may have had questions about what your rights are and what the police are allowed to do.

  • What do police officers need to pull me over?
  • Can they search my car even if I haven’t committed a crime?
  • What do I need to know to protect myself?

While the specific answers depend on the situation, there are four critical things that you need to know about reasonable suspicion and what rules the police must follow.

Watch this short video from David Cantor about “No Reasonable Suspicion to Stop”

1. What is Reasonable Suspicion to Search?

The only standard that a police officer needs to meet to pull your car over—which is also known as an investigatory stop—is reasonable suspicion, but what does that mean? Reasonable suspicion in its most basic sense says that “an officer has reasonable suspicion to believe that a crime has been committed.” While this standard may seem simple, reasonable suspicious contains other rules that must also be met.

A more extended definition of reasonable suspicion, and the one that a court would use to determine if a police officer has the right to stop your vehicle, requires that a reasonable officer, when considering the totality of the circumstances, has some objective reason to believe that a crime or misconduct has been or will be committed.

Standards to Follow

The first standard that we must understand is the reasonable officer standard, which is a specific case of the reasonable person standard. It is the easiest to understand, but also the vaguest to apply. The reasonable person standard does not have an exact legal definition. However, it usually means that another reasonable person in similar circumstances would have acted or believed similarly. The precise application of this standard changes with the situation, but officers are usually expected to behave how another officer would respond.

The second standard that is critical to reasonable suspicion is “totality of the circumstances”. The entirety of the circumstances means that an officer must consider all available facts when determining reasonable suspicion. This standard states that there is no single element that an officer must consider when determining reasonable suspicion. Instead, the officer must consider all aspects of the circumstance, even if those individual elements are not suspicious or illegal.

For example, it is not illegal to have bloody scissors sitting in your car or for you to be wearing a bloody shirt, but these things might be enough to make an officer suspect that you committed a crime. This suspicion cannot be based merely on hunch or intuition but must be specific and articulable, meaning that the officer should be able to state what objective set of circumstances made them suspicious enough to stop the car.


2. Reasonable Suspicion vs. Probable Cause

As stated above, the only justification that a police officer needs to stop your car is reasonable suspicion, but you also might have heard that police need probable cause to search your vehicle. What is probable cause, how is it different from reasonable suspicion, and when can police search my car?

While reasonable suspicion only requires that the officer has some specific reason to suspect that a crime has been committed, probable cause is a higher standard and requires that the officer has some specific knowledge that a crime has likely taken place at a particular location or by some specific person. The higher standard for probable cause is essential for traffic stops because while there are some areas of your car that an officer can see when near your vehicle, other areas are hidden. The probable cause standard determines if they can search your car, and what areas they are allowed to look in.


3. When Can Your Car Be Searched?

If a police officer pulls you over, do they have the right to search your car? The standards required for an officer to search your vehicle are much lower than what would be required to search your house; some parts can be searched during a routine stop, other parts require that an officer believes that some crime has been committed.

If an officer pulls you over during a routine traffic stop and sees something like drugs or a weapon sitting in plain view on your seat, then they likely have enough information to take any illegal items and search the rest of your car. An officer can also search areas of your vehicle where a weapon could be hidden if they have reason to believe that you might be armed or dangerous. Similarly, an officer can also search your car if they have probable cause to believe that you have committed a crime or if the officer has enough evidence to arrest you. In these cases, the officer can search the rest of your vehicle for other contraband.

The other situation which an officer has the right to search any part of your car is when you give them permission. This means that even if they don’t have a reason for the search if you give a police officer permission to do so, they may search every part of your car.


4. What Happens if a Cop Breaks the Rules?

If a police officer breaks the rules regarding reasonable suspicious, or has searched parts of your car that are protected by the probable cause standard when they don’t have probable cause to believe you have committed any misconduct, then there is a possibility that any evidence collected from a subsequent search of your car might be suppressed. This means that it would be inadmissible during a trail.

In one such a case, much of the evidence in the case was suppressed because the officer did not have sufficient reason to pull the car over. In the case, the officer saw a man in the back seat of a vehicle who vaguely fit the description of a suspected phone thief and the officer pulled the car over, searched it, and found the phone. When the case went to trial, the judge suppressed the evidence of the stolen phone because the officer didn’t have enough initial evidence to search the car.

This is an important example of how each rule has a specific application and shows why it is essential for both officers and civilians to be familiar with how the law works. To learn more about reasonable suspicion and your rights, speak with a Criminal Defense Attorney today. We will thoroughly evaluate your case and see if an officer did in fact exercise probable cause to search your vehicle correctly.

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