Getting Pulled Over: What Is and Isn’t Legal

So you’ve been pulled over by the police while driving your vehicle in Virginia – now what? In today’s political climate, it can be very confusing about what is and isn’t legal when it comes to what your rights are. Keep reading to learn more about what you are legally obligated to do if you are pulled over by the police, and how you should act in order to obtain the best possible outcome for yourself.

Getting Pulled Over

The most important thing to know if you are pulled over by law enforcement is that you do not need to consent to a search of your vehicle under any circumstances.

During any interaction you may have with the police, including a traffic stop, it is important to be polite and cooperative. However, this does not mean you are obligated to consent to a search of your vehicle. However, police officers may search your vehicle even if you don’t give your consent. We’ll cover that a bit more in detail below, but if you give your consent to search without a warrant, it waives important constitutional rights and will make it more difficult for you to object to the search down the road if anything illegal is recovered.

When Can a Police Officer Search Your Car?

Generally, the Fourth Amendment requires police officers to have a warrant to conduct a search. However, there are some exceptions that can apply to searches of vehicles:

  • Police can search a vehicle if officers have probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains evidence of a crime. Common examples of probable cause include the sight or smell of contraband in plain sight, or an admission of guilt for a specific crime. Minor traffic violations (for example speeding, a broken tail-light or expired registration) are not considered probable cause.
  • Police can search a vehicle during a traffic stop if they have reasonable suspicion to believe the subject in the vehicle is armed and dangerous.
  • Police can search a vehicle if the situation presents immediate danger to other officers.
  • As stated above, the police can search your vehicle without a warrant if you consent – this excuses them from providing another legal justification for the search.


Most police officers will try to get your consent to search your car through an off-hand comment like“You don’t mind if I do a quick sweep, do you?”, or “I just need to make sure there’s nothing dangerous in there”. Most importantly, do not obstruct a police officer in any physical way. Always be polite and cooperative but you do not need to agree to a search. It is perfectly legal and appropriate to calmly say “No, thank you Officer. I do not consent to a search of this vehicle”.

If the police search your car anyway and find illegal items despite your refusal, your lawyer can file a motion to suppress — or throw out — the evidence in court. If the judge agrees that the officer’s search violated the 4th Amendment’s probable cause requirements, he or she will grant the motion. Unless the prosecution has other evidence, your charges would be dismissed.

If you’ve recently been pulled over and think your vehicle may have been illegally searched, you should speak to a knowledgeable attorney immediately to discuss what options you have. The Center for Criminal and Immigration Law is a boutique law firm that specializes in criminal and immigration law. Contact them today for a free consultation!

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