You maintain certain rights when interacting with authorities, and understanding what these rights are may help you avoid serious legal trouble. The rights you have when authorities pull you over in your vehicle differ to some extent from those you have when they stop or approach you somewhere else. 

Understanding “probable cause”

You may have heard that law enforcement officials need to have a warrant before they may search you during a traffic stop. Is this factual, though? 

Unfortunately, there are some conditions under which authorities may lawfully search your car in the absence of a warrant. Whether they may do so depends on whether they have something called probable cause. 

In simple terms, probable cause refers to something a law enforcement officer sees or smells that offers evidence of illegal activity. If the smell of drugs coming from a vehicle is obvious, for example, this may count as probable cause. Minor traffic violations, such as having a tail light out, typically do not constitute probable cause. 

Reacting during traffic stops

No matter what, remain calm and respectful during your traffic stop. When the law enforcement official approaches, place your hands on the wheel where they are visible. If you plan to invoke your right to remain silent, tell the officer as much. 

If he or she asks you to get out of the car for a search and you do not want the officer searching you, you may exercise your 4th Amendment right. You have the right to refuse the search, but do not expect authorities to inform you of this right.