For a variety of reasons, seeing flashing lights in your rearview mirror may make you feel incredibly anxious. After all, stops can be either a minor inconvenience or a major legal nightmare. If you have evidence of criminal activity, such as drugs or drug paraphernalia, in your vehicle, a search could land you in prison.
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects you from unreasonable searches and seizures. Generally, police officers must obtain a warrant before they search you or your property. That is not the case with your vehicle, though. Instead, provided they have probable cause to believe you have committed a crime, officers may search your vehicle without a warrant.
The difference between reasonable suspicion and probable cause
Every time you climb behind the wheel of your vehicle, you risk having law enforcement officers pull you over. You have certain rights during any traffic stop. Nonetheless, you should know the difference between reasonable suspicion and probable cause. To stop your vehicle, officers must have reasonable suspicion that you have done something wrong. This is a low legal standard that does not require officers to have concrete proof of criminal activity.
Probable cause is a higher legal standard. Instead of relying on a hunch or shaky proof of criminal conduct, officers must have solid evidence that you have committed a crime, are committing a crime or will commit a crime. Failing to signal when changing lanes may give officers reasonable suspicion to stop your vehicle. Smelling marijuana inside the car likely gives them probable cause to search it.
Consent changes the standard
Even though officers must have probable cause to search you or your vehicle, you can give them permission to do so. If officers ask you to consent to the search and you agree, they may look inside your car without probable cause. As such, if you would rather not have officers search your vehicle, refusing consent is often a good idea.
If officers find evidence of criminal activity inside your vehicle, you may have a difficult time defending criminal charges. While not all evidence collected during a search is admissible in court proceedings, keeping officers out of your vehicle is usually an effective strategy for limiting your criminal exposure. By understanding the difference between reasonable suspicion and probable cause, you may increase your odds of staying out of jail.