Legal Review: A Cop Stopped Me For a Broken Taillight and Then Searched My Vehicle — Is This Legal?

Typically, a cop can search a person’s vehicle if they have reasonable suspicion that a crime is taking place. In other words, if a cop has probable cause, they can search your car even if they initially stopped you for a broken taillight, outdated tags, or another minor issue.

Here is an example of how this might play out: a cop stops your car to inform you of a broken taillight. During this process, they see what they believe is an open container of alcohol or evidence of drugs. As a result, they now have probable cause for illegal activity and can search your vehicle.

Reasonable Suspicion vs. Probable Cause

There must be observable evidence of what is likely illegal activity while the car is in motion for a police officer to have reasonable suspicion before pulling the vehicle over. For example, if a driver is weaving across lanes and intermittently speeding up and slowing down, a police officer would have reasonable suspicion that the driver is either drunk or otherwise intoxicated.

The probable cause comes into effect after being stopped, either based on reasonable suspicion or a minor traffic violation. Probable cause is based on visible activity or objects in the car, such as a weapon on the dashboard or containers of alcohol on the floorboards. An officer may also search your vehicle if you admit to a crime when talking with the officer.

What Constitutes An Illegal Vehicle Search

It is illegal for police officers to stop and search your vehicle if they do not have a legitimate reason tied to reasonable suspicion or probable cause. For example, a cop cannot search your car because you ‘look like a criminal.’ Though they may pull you over for minor traffic or motion violations, this does not give them the authority to search your car.

It is also illegal for a police officer to pull you over based on a hunch rather than observable characteristics. Similarly, it is unlawful for a police officer to pull you over based on a minor traffic violation and then search your car without any probable cause.

If you suspect you have been the victim of an illegal vehicle search, contact a criminal defense lawyer to discuss the circumstances of the search and what your options may be.

Know Your Rights And Contact A Lawyer

The best way to handle police encounters is to know your rights and educate yourself on how to handle being pulled over for any reason. There are several tricks that police officers commonly use to try and fluster drivers or find probable cause for a search after stopping the vehicle.

To protect yourself, learn about your right and follow these guidelines:

  • Remain calm and only directly respond to the officer’s inquiries that are related to their reason for pulling you over; do not volunteer additional details or become emotional
  • Do not grant an officer’s request to search your vehicle; if an officer has to request to search your car, it means they do not have reasonable suspicion or probable cause
  • Remember that an officer’s authority to search your vehicle is limited; neither giving you a ticket for a traffic violation nor frisking/searching you gives them the power to search your vehicle

When in doubt, contact a lawyer or other representative. If you want to be especially careful, you can call your lawyer as soon as a cop pulls you over.