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Can police “stop and search” you?

Posted Tuesday, February 19, 2019 by Andrew Charles Huff

Washington state police cannot search a car without a search warrant. To search a car, police must instead petition a judge for a warrant and then carry out the search within a specific time frame. This ruling by the Washington State Supreme Court held that police must obtain a search warrant in order to search a vehicle even if there is reason to suspect that a vehicle contains evidence of a crime. The Washington Supreme Court found in State v. Snapp that searching a car for evidence of a crime when the driver has already been arrested is illegal under Article I, Section 7 of the state constitution.

An officer who has probable cause must still obtain a warrant to search. Washington law defines probable cause as “having more evidence for than against; a reasonable belief that a crime has or is being committed.” An officer without a warrant cannot search your car without your permission. In this situation, you may decline to have your car or person searched.

Exceptions to the warrant requirement

There are certain exceptions under which police may search a car without a warrant. These exceptions include if immediate action is required to protect someone or prevent evidence from being destroyed. These are known as “exigent circumstances.”

What to do when stopped

If you are stopped by police, you should remain in your vehicle and maintain a calm, respectful attitude. Actions like getting out of your car without being asked or reaching underneath your seat can be construed as threatening. Turn on the interior light if it’s dark outside, and keep your hands on the steering wheel in plain sight.If the officer asks to see your license, registration, or proof of insurance, the law requires you to comply. Do not argue with the officer, and restrain the urge to complain or resist. If you feel you have been treated unfairly, you should take your complaint to traffic court rather than argue with the police at the scene. Remember that anything you say can be used against you.

While you must show your license and registration if asked, you don’t have to answer any questions. If the police ask to search your car, and do not show you a warrant, you can refuse. If the officer says he or she has a search warrant, you should ask to see the warrant before letting him or her search your car. Be polite, but make it clear that you do not consent to a search.

If the police give you a ticket, you should sign it to avoid arrest. Then, if you feel the ticket is unfair, you can argue it later in traffic court.

If you are arrested, you should ask why and ask to speak with an attorney immediately. You have the right to know the reason for your arrest, and you have the right to a lawyer’s counsel.

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