Can the Police Search My Car During a Traffic Stop in Connecticut?

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East Hartford criminal defense attorneysWhen the police have reasons to believe that a person may have been involved with a crime, it is not uncommon for an officer to initiate a traffic stop in order for the officer to investigate a little closer. Court interpretations of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution have held that traffic stops must be based on probable cause. This generally means that the officer must have seen the driver break a traffic law or observed indications that the driver was drunk, for example. But, what happens when once the driver is stopped? Can officers just decide to search the car to look for drugs, weapons, or other illegal items?

Probable Cause and Consent

Under the Fourth Amendment, courts have long required police officers to establish separate probable cause to justify a search of the vehicle during the traffic stop. In this context, “separate” probable cause means that the officer has reasonable grounds to believe that the vehicle contains illegal items or evidence of criminal activity that is unrelated to the traffic violation for which the driver was stopped. Basic suspicion, including the driver’s reputation in the community or the time and location of the stop, is not usually sufficient to establish probable cause. Information from a tip, however, or the smell of drugs coming from the car could provide the probable cause the officer needs to conduct a search.

With all of this having been said, one of the most common ways for officers to get around the need for probable cause is to ask for the driver’s consent to search the vehicle. In many cases, the officer will ask directly, “Do you mind if I search your car? You don’t have anything to hide, right?” Other times, the officer may be more subtle, saying something to the effect of, “I’m sure it will amount to nothing, but you don’t mind if I have a quick look, do you?” If the driver gives his or her consent, the probable cause requirement no longer applies.

New Police Accountability Reforms Prohibit Police from Asking to Search

On October 1, 2020, the first of Connecticut’s new police accountability laws went into effect. These reforms were signed by Governor Ned Lamont in July, largely as a response to the calls for change stemming from police-related incidents around the country. Several provisions took effect on October 1, including one that applies directly to police behavior during a traffic stop.  

Effective immediately, a police officer in Connecticut is not allowed to ask a driver for consent to conduct a search during a routine traffic stop. The officer can still search the vehicle if probable cause is established, but the officer cannot attempt to circumvent the probable cause requirement by requesting permission. The new law does allow a search to be conducted based on the driver’s unsolicited consent. Unsolicited consent means that the driver says something along the lines of, “You can go ahead and search the car,” without being prompted or asked by the officer—a rather unlikely scenario.

A Connecticut Criminal Defense Attorney Can Help

If you were subjected to a search of your vehicle by the police without your consent, any evidence obtained in the search might be deemed inadmissible in court. Contact an experienced East Hartford criminal defense lawyer to discuss your situation and your available options. Call the Woolf Law Firm, LLC at 860-290-8690 to schedule a free, confidential consultation with a member of our team today.

 

Sources:

https://www.cga.ct.gov/2020/TOB/H/PDF/2020HB-06004-R00-HB.PDF

https://www.ctpost.com/local/slideshow/Photos-from-article-CT-police-accountability-law-210080.php

https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/connecticut/articles/2020-10-01/first-provisions-of-police-accountability-package-become-law

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