Vehicle Searches: What is Legal?

Jun 29, 2018


You see the flashing lights behind you and anxiety starts to build up. Even if you have nothing to worry about, getting pulled over can still be nerve racking. It is even worse if items in your vehicle could result in criminal charges. Regardless, it is important to stay calm, be respectful and know your rights.


In the State of Wisconsin, police do not need a warrant to search your vehicle. The following are common examples of when your vehicle can be searched without a warrant.

If you give the officer permission. The officer may come out and ask if they can search your vehicle, the answer is always no.

If you have been arrested. Once you are arrested, the police can turn your vehicle upside down looking for criminal contraband.

If the officer has probable cause.


Since in the State of Wisconsin the police only need probable cause to search your vehicle, it’s important to understand what constitutes as probable cause. Probable cause is basically just reasonable suspicion. However, just because you have been pulled over for a traffic stop and the officer has a “hunch”, it doesn’t qualify as probable cause. Common examples of probable cause from a routine traffic stop comes from sight, smell and self-incrimination.


If the officer comes up to your window after pulling you over and happens to see remnants of drugs, an empty beer can, drug paraphernalia, or any signs that you might be involved in criminal activity, that is considered probable cause. The officer is then legally allowed to search your vehicle.


If you have been pulled over and the officer notices a distinct aroma, whether it is the smell of alcohol or marijuana, that is considered probable cause. If an officer claims that they smell something, it is very difficult to prove that they do not, especially if their search turns up with illegal contraband.


The first questions an officer asks when he walks up to your window is, “Do you know why I pulled you over?”. This is the first of many questions an officer will ask you to determine if you have been involved in criminal activity. Be careful not to incriminate yourself when you answer the officer’s questions. Your answers could lead to an arrest due to admitting criminal activity or give the officer probable cause to search your vehicle.


Here is a recent example of where probable cause did not exist, nearly 500 pounds of marijuana cannot be used as evidence because a county deputy did not have probable cause.


If you feel that the search conducted on your vehicle was unlawful, your Attorney can file a Motion to Suppress Evidence. Whether you are facing misdemeanor charges or felony charges, it is important to find an attorney who will fight for you. Pedersen Law Office, LLC offers free consults in all of our areas of practice and will meet with you personally to discuss your specific circumstances and the details of your case. Our law office serves the communities of Appleton, Neenah, Menasha, Oshkosh, Green Bay and their surrounding areas.

Category: Criminal

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