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Must I allow a law enforcement officer to search my car?

You may have had the experience while driving in Wisconsin of being pulled over by a law enforcement officer for speeding or some other traffic offense. As part of that traffic stop, the officer may have asked to search your car and you assumed that you had no choice but to consent.

Actually, you did have a choice. While you should never argue with a law enforcement officer or disrespect him or her, you nevertheless are not required to consent to a vehicle search. You can respectfully decline.

Terry stops and vehicle searches

The Washington Post reports that routine traffic stops fall into the category of vehicular Terry stops. The U.S. Supreme Court decided almost 50 years ago in the case of Terry v. Ohio that the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees that you cannot be subject to unreasonable searches and seizures by law enforcement officers.

The 2015 case of Rodriguez v. United States elaborated on Terry v. Ohio by ruling that when a law enforcement officer pulls you over for a traffic violation, he or she can only do the following three things:

  1. Check your registration, driver’s license and insurance card
  2. Run a warrant check to see if you have any outstanding warrants
  3. Give you the appropriate ticket(s)

Technically, a law enforcement officer does not have the right to even ask to search your vehicle during a traffic stop, although many officers do. He or she certainly does not have the right to search it without your consent unless firearms, alcohol or drugs are in plain view inside. The reason for this restriction is because searching your car has nothing to do with the reason for which the officer stopped you; i.e., that you committed a traffic violation. This information is provided for educational purposes and should not be interpreted as legal advice.

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