When we think police searches, warrants almost always come to mind. In many circumstances, officers are bound by the need for a court-approved search warrant before conducting a legal search, but vehicle searches are different.
In Wisconsin, police only need probable cause to legally search your vehicle. In other words, they must have facts or evidence to reasonably believe you’re currently involved in some kind of criminal activity.
Probable cause is not the same as a hunch and most law enforcement officers are well aware that acting on a hunch alone can seriously jeopardize their actions. Before conducting a search, the officer must observe or sense something real.
Some of the most common examples of observations made by police which constitute probable cause include visible contraband in the vehicle, the smell of contraband coming from inside the vehicle, or some sort of admission of guilt from the driver or a passenger inside the car.
Traffic violations on their own are not enough to constitute probable cause. If you’re stopped for speeding, have a broken tail light, or are driving with expired registration, these are not grounds for a legal vehicle search.
So, how do you stop police from searching your car in the first place?
If you’ve ever had an encounter with police, you’re probably well aware of how stressful these situations can be when officers begin pressuring you for answers.
It’s important to realize that simply understanding what police are looking for in order to establish probable cause during a stop won’t be enough to prep you for an actual real life encounter.
Officers are aware of key loopholes that give them an advantage over the situation if they feel a search might turn up evidence or contraband even if there aren’t any obvious clues.
Smell as an excuse to search your vehicle
After the US Supreme Court ruled that officers could “rely on distinctive odors as a physical fact indicative of a possible crime” back in 1932, smells coming from a vehicle or person qualified for establishing probable cause.
As it stands now, if police claim to smell something, it’s very difficult to prove them wrong, especially if their search turns up illegal substances. There is no device capable of detecting or measuring a smell, which could be used as evidence, so until one comes around, an officer’s nose will continue to be difficult to challenge.
Remain calm and vigilant during all traffic stops
If police stop your vehicle and suspect you may be in possession of an illegal substance, there’s a good chance they’ll begin asking questions in an attempt to trick you into admitting or confessing to wrongdoing. Staying calm and being aware of your answers can mean all the difference.
If you are flagged by an officer here are the best steps to take to appear calm and cool:
- If safe, pull over immediately.
- Turn your vehicle off completely.
- Place your hands on the wheel and keep them there. Don’t retrieve documents or move things around inside the vehicle.
- If you’re stopped at night, turn on the interior light. This makes it easier for the officer to see that you’re not armed or attempting to hide something.
- Use the word “Officer” to refer to police when they approach, and remain polite. Never raise your voice or talk back to an officer. This only makes things worse.
- Whether you’re carrying something illegal or not, never complain about a ticket if you’re given one. Accept it, listen to the instructions you’re given, and drive away slowly.
Remain silent if asked an incriminating question
Police routinely ask incriminating questions to try to get drivers to fess up right off the bat. Even the question “Do you know how fast you were going?” is a thinly veiled attempt to get an admission of guilt from you.
To politely assert your right to avoid self-incrimination, simply answer with “No, officer.”
Remember: Anything you say can and will be used against you in court. The less you say, the better off you’ll be.
Exercise your right to refuse a request to search
If police order you out of the vehicle, you legally must comply. If they want to conduct a search, they may ask something like “You don’t mind if I take a look in your car?”
This, again is an attempt to secure consent from you. Replying with “I do not consent to searches” makes it clear you’re refusing. Refusing a search is not the same as admitting that you’re guilty and doesn’t give the officer legal grounds to search or detain you.
If police do search your car and find something illegal despite your refusal to let them search, an experienced Beloit criminal defense attorney can file a motion to throw out (suppress) the evidence in court.
Ask the officer if you’re free to go
If you’re not being arrested or detained, you don’t have to wait to be dismissed by the officer. Simply ask them if you’re free to go.
One common tactic used by police is to threaten the driver by calling in a K9 unit if they’re not allowed to conduct a search. By simply asking if you’re free to go, this can help you withdraw from the encounter. If they tell you you’re free to go, do so immediately.
Request an experienced Wisconsin Criminal Defense attorney
If you’re not free to go and haven’t been arrested, you’re being detained. Whether you’re arrested or detained, it’s crucial to use your right to remain silent and request an attorney. This request is your best protection in these circumstances.
If you believe you’ve been the victim of an illegal search or seizure by police, it’s crucial to hire an experienced criminal defense lawyer in Beloit, Wisconsin immediately. Contact the Fitzgerald Law Firm today for a free consultation. We understand that meetings may not be possible during traditional business hours, so please let us know a time that works for you and we’ll do our best to accommodate you.
Photo credit: Anthony Citrano