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I was pulled over for a broken tailight and the cop asked to search my car. Can he do that?


Good question! You are asking about a long time legal issue...Search and Seizure. There are tons of cases that focus on a police officer's authority to search a person's home, vehicle, and person. The Fourth Amendment guards against the government’s ability to conduct unreasonable search and seizures when the person being searched has a “reasonable exception of privacy.” The principle really is that police must get a warrant, which is signed by a judge, in order to perform a search. With that said, there are many exceptions to the requirement of a warrant. One exception being, an automobile. The reason for this is that automobiles, unlike an office or a home, is mobile. A police officer can't say, "hey Bill, I believe that you committed a crime and evidence of that crime is under your seat....can you wait here while I prepare a search warrant and then get a judge to sign it?" That would be silly. So police do not need a warrant to search your automobile. However, they cannot just search every car that is stopped for a traffic violation. My tail light being out or my failure to stop at a stop sign does not give an officer the right to search my vehicle.

Based only on the facts that you have given....a tail light being out....the police officer didn't have enough to search your car. In your case, the police officer asked to search your car. In legal terms the police wanted you to consent to a search. If you consented to the search and he subsequently found something illegal you could be charged. You cannot now argue that the police officer didn't have probable cause to search your car, because he didn't need it. You told him that he could search! The police officer does not have to tell you that you have a right to refuse his request. He consented. He is allowed to ask. Case Closed!

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Please be aware that every situation is different and a simple fact can change this answer. Always consult with a lawyer when faced with a legal issue.