Imagine you’re driving down the road and then see the blue and red lights flashing in your rearview mirror. You may not know why you’re being pulled over. Perhaps your taillight is out. Perhaps your tags have expired. Perhaps there’s a more serious reason why a police officer may pull you over. It’s also possible that there is no discernible reason that you know.
However, just because a police officer pulls you over, you do not lose your rights to be secure in your car.
When can a police officer pull you over?
A police officer can pull you over if she has reasonable suspicion. There’s no cut and dry definition of reasonable suspicion. It’s a lower standard than probable cause, but a much higher standard than simple a “hunch” or a “feeling.” A reasonable suspicion is one that a police officer can articulate as being a specific reason to believe that people in the car have committed a crime or are currently committing a crime.
For example, it would be reasonable suspicion if a car zoomed passed at 20 miles over the speed limit. It would not be reasonable suspicion if a driver had no warrants, the car was in good repair, and the driver broke no laws but simply had an “I Hate Cops” bumper sticker.
How long can you be pulled over?
There is no set time, so long as it is reasonable. An officer may pull you over for a short period of time, long enough to determine if you have committed a crime, if you’re wanted by the police, or if there is any reason to ticket you or arrest you. For example, a police officer can’t pull you over for suspicion of driving drunk and compel you to sit on the side of the road for an hour until he thinks you’ve sobered up enough to drive. Likewise, you can’t be forced to sit on the side of the road and wait for two hours until a K-9 unit can come do a drug sniff on your car.
You do have to show the officer your ID, and you do have to get out of the vehicle when asked.
You’re not required to show a police officer your ID simply because she’s asked for it. Citizens aren’t required to have government-issued IDs, much less carry them on their person at all times. However, if you’re driving a vehicle, you have to produce your license and registration, because drivers must have an active, valid driver’s license to drive and the vehicle must have a valid registration to be on the road.
You DON’T have to let the officer inside your vehicle or allow them to shine a light and look through your car.
An officer only needs reasonable suspicion to pull you over and detain you for a short period. Being detained, however, doesn’t give the officer permission to enter your vehicle. This means leaning in, reaching in, or putting a flashlight in the vehicle to shine it on persons or the car itself.
Search of your vehicle – Can they? Do I have to let them?
The answer is it depends. The Fourth Amendment protects against unlawful searches and seizures. A police officer doesn’t have a right to search your car simply because you’ve been detained, so the police officer must have a permissible reason to search your vehicle.
The police can search your car if:
- You give them permission,
- Your car is impounded,
- They have a valid search warrant,
- They’re arresting you, or
- There is probable cause.
But do you have to give them permission? First, you’re not required to consent to any searches of your person, your home, or your belongings, and refusing a search is not evidence of guilt, nor does it create a reasonable suspicion. However, since the other reasons a police officer can search your car don’t require your permission or input, it’s likely that the police have no lawful reason to search your car, so they’re seeking permission. Only the owner can give permission to search the car; passengers without ownership cannot.
If the police don’t have permission, they need either a warrant or probable cause to search the vehicle.
What is Probable Cause, and When Would the Police Have It?
Probable cause is a standard above reasonable suspicion. It means that due to what the police officer can observe (not just what she thinks or believes), a crime was likely committed or is likely being committed. Probable cause is needed before the police can search the car. However, this usually means that the police can only search what is visible, like the dashboard, the console, the floors, and the seats.
The police can also only search the parts of the vehicle they can see from the outside unless you give them permission, or if there’s probable cause to search the unseen places of a car for evidence of a crime. For example, if a police officer pulls a driver over and sees them reach under their seat before the officer comes, the officer has probable cause to search for contraband under the seat. However, if nothing is found that leads to an arrest, the officer can’t go on a fishing expedition and check under all the seats, the trunk, or the glove compartment.
Do you have to take the field sobriety and Breathalyzer test?
In short, yes, and you’ve already given the police permission to conduct them. In every state in the United States, there is an “implied consent” law, meaning that if a driver chooses to drive on the public roads, the driver automatically gives the police permission to check the driver’s sobriety if there is reasonable suspicion that the driver is intoxicated.
While Breathalyzer tests are considered a search under the Constitution, they are not considered unreasonable searches the same way that demanding a blood test will be. Thus, if you are driving on a public road and you are pulled over under suspicion of driving under the influence, you must take the field sobriety test and the breathalyzer test if requested since you have already given the officers permission to search your body for drugs or alcohol under the implied consent laws.
What happens if you refuse the Breathalyzer test or the field sobriety test?
This depends on the state where you are arrested and where you are licensed. In many states, refusing a Breathalyzer is an automatic six-month suspension of your driver’s license for six months up to one year. In other states, you may have mandatory jail time for refusal.
However, the police make mistakes, and sometimes they violate driver’s rights by unlawfully pulling them over and searching them. Sobriety tests can also have false positives. If you’re currently facing charges due to being pulled over by a police officer, speak with a criminal attorney.