Although no obligation to consent exists, the driver may permit a vehicle search after being stopped. The consent must be voluntary and not obtained through harassment or intimidation on the part of the officer.

Example: If you have children in the car and the officer tells you she will call child protective services if you do not consent, you are being harassed and intimidated. However, there is no intimidation if the officer tells you she thinks you are drunk, is going to arrest you anyway and you might as well consent to the search. Her belief that you are intoxicated and her plan to arrest you are simply the facts of the situation.

TIP: If no reason for the stop existed, i.e., no traffic law was actually violated, consent to search the vehicle is invalid. For example, if the officer stopped you because she believed a law against decorative license plate frames had gone into effect when it had not, your consent to search is invalid.

If I have not been arrested, can my vehicle be searched without my consent during a routine traffic stop?

Yes, if the officer has a reasonable belief that criminal activity has occurred or may occur and he has cause to arrest you. For example, your vehicle can be searched if the officer sees a hypodermic needle in the front seat before you the arrest.

Sidebar: Vehicles may be searched "incident to arrest." If you can be arrested, your vehicle can be searched.

Can a drug dog be used to "sniff" my vehicle without my consent?

Yes. Once the officer has a reasonable suspicion that drugs may in the vehicle, the drug dog can sniff your car even if you refuse to allow your vehicle be searched.

Can my refusal to consent to a search arouse enough suspicion in a police officer that she can conduct a search after all?

No. Your refusal to consent cannot alone give rise to a justification for searching your vehicle.

If I give my consent to a search of my vehicle, can belongings in the car be opened and searched as well?

Yes. Although, the scope of the search is limited to the vehicle, items and containers are extensions of the automobile when they are in it. Therefore, if the officer has probable cause to believe illegal items or other criminal evidence is concealed in your belongings, those belongings can be searched. For example, if the officer sees a suitcase fastened on all sides with duct tape, there is probable cause that drugs are inside and he can open it.

TIP: Consenting to a vehicle search does not permit law enforcement personnel to dismantle the car. Pulling seats out of the vehicle is beyond the scope of the search to which you consented.

Sidebar: In situations where a drug dog has indicated the presence of drugs in parts of the vehicle that cannot be easily inspected, the scope of the search widens and the vehicle can be dismantled. For instance, if the dog alerts officers to the possibility of drugs in the fuel tank, the officers can dismantle the car to get to the fuel tank and open it up.

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