Often times a police officer will ask someone who they have stopped to issue a traffic citation to if the officer can search their car. It surprises me sometimes how often a person consents to allowing the officer to search when the officer has no grounds to do so and when the person has drugs or something illegal in their car!
Generally the only time an officer can search a person’s car without consent is if they have probable cause to believe that the car contains drugs or contraband or if an individual in the car is arrested and the car is searched “incident to that arrest.” I think most of the time people who consent to their car being searched knowing that there are drugs or contraband in the car do so because they believe if they didn’t consent the officer will search it anyway. This is not true. In the situation where the officer can search pursuant to probable cause, there must be some indication that drugs or contraband are in the car, e.g. they smell marijuana or drugs or contraband is in plain or open view. “Plain view” means that the drugs or contraband must be visible from the position the officer is in outside of the vehicle.
So what do you do if an officer asks you for consent to search your car? The best thing to do is to politely refuse. You may want to say something like this, “Officer, I know you are only doing your job, but a friend of mine who is a lawyer told me that I don’t have to give consent and I don’t really want to be inconvenienced by staying here while you search through my car, so I respectfully decline,” or, more simply, “No sir, I don’t give consent. Now may I be on my way?” The officer may be disgruntled or upset about not allowing him to search your car but so be it. The officer, if he or she is finished writing you a citation cannot legally keep you at the scene of the stop any longer. It is better to be on your way than to be held up by an officer going on a fishing expedition inside your vehicle and probably calling a canine unit to perform a dog sniff on the interior or your car as well. Although you may not have any drugs or contraband in your car and you don’t think anyone who has been a passenger ever has had drugs if the prior owner used drugs or if a passenger unbeknownst to you has had drugs in their possession, something could be found or a drug sniffing dog could alert.