It’s a common scene during a traffic stop. A law enforcement officer tells the driver, “You don’t mind if I take a quick look in your vehicle, do you?” It sounds more like a statement than a question. How are you supposed to respond?

Many people don’t realize, not only can you choose not to give your consent, but doing so can potentially have an impact on your case down the line.

What makes a vehicle search lawful

Law enforcement officers can not legally stop someone at random or based on a “hunch.” To lawfully conduct a traffic stop, they need to have reasonable suspicion that the motorist is violating the law.

Once a law enforcement officer pulls over that motorist, they cannot automatically search the vehicle. In order to do so lawfully, they need to have probable cause that a crime is being committed. Probable cause might be the smell of marijuana coming from the car, or drug paraphernalia out and visible in the back seat. An officer cannot lawfully search a vehicle without probable cause.

Unless you give them permission.

‘I do not consent to a search’

Sometimes, if a law enforcement officer doesn’t have probable cause to search a vehicle, they will try to get permission from the driver. They may ask directly: “Can I search your vehicle?” Other times they might use tricky wording, such as, “You don’t mind if I search your vehicle, do you?” They may ask multiple times in many different ways.

Their goal is to get you to slip up and give your consent. If you do, anything the officer finds in your vehicle could be used against you as part of a criminal case. That is why, when an officer asks whether they can search your vehicle, it is important to state you do not give them consent to do so. Say it clearly and calmly, and repeat it as many times as necessary.

The officer may search your car anyway. If they do so without your consent and without being able to demonstrate there was probable cause, a defense lawyer may be able to get any evidence they found thrown out.

This is a simple overview of a very complex area of the law. In general, however, clearly communicating your rights during a traffic stop can have a significant impact on the trajectory of your case, potentially allowing you to resume your normal life far more quickly.