Most traffic stops initiated by New Jersey police officers will result in a citation, not an arrest. Officers notice that someone has a burned-out light on their vehicle or that they traveled at speeds that were too high, so they write a ticket.
However, some traffic stops lead to major criminal charges. Often, an arrest follows a police officer searching a vehicle and discovering something illegal, like a firearm or a prohibited substance. Sometimes, those facing criminal charges because of a search during a traffic stop can prevent the prosecutor from presenting that evidence to the courts by challenging the legality of the search.
When can police officers search your vehicle?
When they have your permission
Many drivers who end up arrested after a standard traffic stop made the mistake of giving a police officer consent to conduct the search. When an officer doesn’t have a justification to search on their own but thinks they could find something that could lead to criminal charges, they will ask a driver’s permission to go through their vehicle.
Once a driver gives their permission, the officer can then potentially find items that a driver forgot about or didn’t know were in the vehicle. Drivers can protect themselves by remembering that they often have the right to decline such requests.
When they have probable cause
If an officer notices something that makes them suspect criminal activity, that can give them grounds to conduct a search. A vehicle that smells like methamphetamine, for example, would give an officer probable cause to look for drugs and paraphernalia.
A weapon visible under the driver’s seat would be another reason an officer would have probable cause to search the vehicle. If the vehicle matched the description of a vehicle involved in a crime recently, that could also give an officer the probable cause they need to conduct a search without permission.
When they secure a warrant
Sometimes, officers have a warrant signed by a judge authorizing them to search a vehicle. They might obtain a warrant when they arrest someone during a traffic stop but that individual refuses to give consent for the search. If one of these three circumstances does not apply in your case, then the police officer searching your vehicle may have violated your rights.
Learning more about what police officers can and cannot do can help you plan your criminal defense strategy.