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When can the police search your car for drugs?

Generally speaking, the police can't just stop your vehicle while you're driving down the road and subject you to a warrantless search. First, they have to have a valid reason -- or probable cause -- to stop your car in the first place. Once you're stopped, they still can't search your car for drugs -- unless they have your permission -- without good cause.

Now, none of that means that you're actually safe from a search if the police are curious about what's in your vehicle and determined to make a search. It isn't that hard for an officer to find a reason to make a traffic stop. Whether you carelessly glide through an intersection without coming to a full stop at the sign or the officer decides that you're taking your turns too wide, you can easily find yourself pulled over and waiting for a ticket.

That's when your trouble can really start. Absent a warrant or your consent to the search, the police can still look through your vehicle whenever:

  • You're placed under arrest and the search is incidental to that arrest, which could easily happen if you have any outstanding bench warrants for unpaid traffic fines or other issues
  • The officer believes that the search is necessary for their own safety -- which could happen if the officer claims that they saw you tuck something that might be a weapon under your seat
  • There's some other probable cause for a drug search

That last item is particularly problematic for defendants because a "reasonable suspicion" that there are drugs in the car to an officer could be something like a package of mints that an officer decides looks like narcotics or tortilla dough that is mistaken for cocaine. Officers may also be able to search your car if they claim they smell marijuana coming from the vehicle or your clothes or think that you're "acting high."

One of the most important methods of defending against drug possession charges comes through challenging the basis used to stop your vehicle and the reason that your car was searched. That isn't something that you can easily do on your own, so make sure that you have an experienced defense.

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