According to a study by Stanford University, there are over 20 million traffic stops each year in Maryland and around the country, and many of these stops result in a vehicle search by police. Law enforcement does not require a warrant to conduct an automobile search, but they must have probable cause, although all that is needed for the stop itself is a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been or is being committed, and that is a less stringent standard.
What is probable cause?
Before delving into circumstances which could warrant probable cause, it is important to understand what probable cause is. There must be something that alerts officers to illegal activity to justify a search. That suspicion is referred to as probable cause and will be important in establishing a criminal defense strategy.
Reason to believe
Officers can search your vehicle if they have spotted something that gives them reason to believe there could be illegal items in the vehicle. An example of this would be noticing a pipe used to smoke drugs in plain sight in your vehicle.
During a traffic stop, officers can ask for permission to search your vehicle. If you give consent, they have the right to search every part of the car and everything in it. This would include personal items such as purses or luggage.
Protection of the officer
If law enforcement believes there is a weapon in the vehicle, they have the right to search the car to ensure their protection. The causes for a search are very subjective to the individual circumstances of the traffic stop, and it is up to law enforcement to determine what created the suspicion of a weapon in the vehicle.
Public safety concerns
If police determine there could be some threat to public safety, they can legally search your vehicle and possibly impose criminal charges. Examples of this would be erratic driving, excessive speed and the suspicion of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.