Mark Law Firm Blog

Can police search my vehicle during a traffic stop?

Posted by Jamison Mark on Jul 12, 2015 10:00:00 PM
New Jersey Attorneys
Long summer weekends can mean more law enforcement personnel on the streets. If you are stopped while driving, do you know what you must do, and what you may refuse?


The Fourth Amendment protects against “unreasonable search and seizure.” It applies to all people, in all states, across the country. It applies to citizens and non-citizens, visitors and vagrants, senior citizens and children. Its provisions can only be abridged by the U.S. Congress or an emergency Executive Order.

What is a “Seizure”?

Stopping your vehicle is considered a “seizure,” which must have a reasonable basis for it to be legal. A “reasonable basis” can include:

  • Witnessing your commission of a traffic violation or a violation of the vehicle code (e.g., expired registration tags, non-compliant vehicle lights, etc.)
  • Suspecting you of another crime (e.g., driving a vehicle that matches one suspected in a kidnapping)
  • Erratic driving that seems dangerous or could indicate a driver under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • A scheduled and publicized vehicle checkpoint or roadblock (e.g., a DUI checkpoint, a fugitive search, etc.)

Except in the case of a checkpoint or roadblock, police must have specific and articulable facts to justify a traffic stop. Just a “hunch” or “feeling” is not enough. The officer must have a lawful reason or justification for stopping a motorist. A traffic stop that is not justified will not be valid and any evidence obtained by the officer from such a stop will not be admissible in court.

A “pretextual” traffic stop is when an officer claims suspicion of a traffic violation as an excuse to stop a vehicle for another reason. Pretextual stops, however, are often still valid, even if a reasonable officer would not have made the stop. Thus, an officer’s ulterior motive for making a pretextual traffic stop may not be relevant in determining whether the stop was valid and any evidence gained therefrom admissible.

Roadblocks or sobriety checkpoints are permitted under the Fourth Amendment so long as they are conducted in a neutral or non-arbitrary manner, their intrusion on motorists is limited, and they further an important governmental or public purpose (such as preventing impaired driving, catching a fugitive, finding a missing child, etc.). There is no requirement that an officer have a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to justify a stop at a roadblock.

What is a “Search”?

Officers are not generally allowed to search through your personal belongings, your house, or your car without sufficient reason.

Police will often ask drivers and passengers in vehicles which have been stopped for a traffic offense or other permissible reason if they can search the vehicle. You do not have to consent to that search. Unless officers have a warrant or probable cause, they may not legally search the vehicle. “Probable cause” exists when an officer has a reasonable suspicion that something dangerous or illegal is concealed in your car. New Jersey requires that an officer have a reasonable, specific, articulable suspicion to conduct a search beyond the original traffic stop – even if you or a passenger gives consent – for the evidence obtained from a search to be admissible in court. (This requirement only exists in cases of traffic-related stops, however, and is not applicable to roadblocks or DUI checkpoints.)

In fact, New Jersey has some of the highest criteria in the country to justify a warrantless search under the automobile exception: the requirement of “exigent circumstances” in addition to the 4th Amendment probable cause requirement. In determining whether appropriately “exigent” conditions existed to justify the warrantless search, the court will take into account the “unforeseeability and spontaneity of the circumstances giving rise to probable cause, and the inherent mobility of the automobile.”[1]

If they have reasonable suspicion to warrant probable cause, and exigent circumstances, the police do not need to get a warrant. This is what’s known as the “automobile exception” to the usual requirement that police get a warrant before they are legally permitted to search your property.

Depending on the state, if the exception requirement are met, the officer can search not only the interior but also locked compartments of your car (including the glove box and trunk). In New Jersey, once probable cause exists to search the interior of a motor vehicle, the police may search every part of the vehicle, including containers in which there is probable cause to believe that the object of the search may be found.[2]

Officers can also choose to detain you and wait for a search warrant. If they do, then they will be able to conduct a more thorough search of your car. 

Are there any other limitations on a traffic stop?

Officers cannot order a driver or passengers out of the car without probable cause.[3]

You have the right to record a traffic stop, either visually or audibly.

An officer cannot detain you indefinitely. Unfortunately, there is no quantifiable guideline for what is “reasonable.” The police may detain drivers while running records checks on their license plates and IDs, and longer if a search is justified (including additional time if they seek a warrant).

You can decline to answer questions ("Do you know why I pulled you over today?" “Do you have anything illegal in the car?”) but must provide your driver’s license, car registration, and proof of insurance upon request.

You may ask a police officer for her badge number during a traffic stop. Uniformed officers in states like California are required to display their badge numbers on their nameplate or badge.

If you are arrested, immediately ask for a lawyer. If you can’t pay for a lawyer, you have the right to a public defender or other attorney at no cost. Don’t say anything without a lawyer. You have the right to remain silent – use it!


If you have been arrested, or if you feel that your rights have been violated during a traffic stop, consult a knowledgeable criminal defense lawyer to determine if there are any legal remedies for you.

The New Jersey criminal defense lawyers at The Mark Law Firm can help if you run afoul of these or any other New Jersey criminal laws and need an experienced attorney's assistance. Our Newark and Basking Ridge criminal lawyers are available to represent you in criminal and civil disputes, as well as personal injury lawsuits.

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[1] Ibid.

[2] State v. Hammer (New Jersey Supreme Court, 2001)

[3] New Jersey v. Bacome (New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, 2015)

Topics: Criminal Defense