It's around midnight. You're driving home from the bar. You're just miles away from campus when you see the red lights flashing behind you. Did you swerve? Were you speeding? You rack your brain as you start to move over to the shoulder, putting your hazards on.
Everything is going rather standard for a traffic stop. The officer asks if you've been drinking. Where you are coming from. Where you are going. The rather standard questions. He has the flashlight in your face, but is also clearly peeping inside your car. Now he formally asks, "Can I take a look around?"
Do you have to let an officer search your car?
No. You do not have to consent to a search. And while it may seem strange to say no when the officer asks to search, this is your legal right and you should exercise it.
Many people do not realize what their legal rights are. They think that just because a police officer asks, they have to say yes, but this is not true. Rather, you can -- and should - politely say no.
There is one caveat to this though: If the officer believes evidence of a crime is in your car, even if you say no, he or she can still search. In this case, now is the time to say you want to exercise your right to remain silent and let the search happen. If the search results in your arrest, call your attorney and do not answer any questions until your attorney is there.
Should you let an officer search your car?
All too often, people want to show they have nothing to hide and think being cooperative and allowing for a search is the way to go. However, you are opening the door to incriminating evidence and you might not even realize it.
Maybe a friend left behind something they shouldn't have? Or maybe you have an item that an officer may think is drug paraphernalia -- regardless of it's true intended purpose? Many of us have messy cars and it can be hard to keep track of everything that is in your car, including the glove box and trunk - both of which the officer will search, if you allow for it.
Granted, you may not always have a say in a search. As mentioned above, if there is legitimate reason to believe your car contains evidence of a crime, the officer can search without your consent. But if the officer is asking for your consent, it is always better to say no.