There are actually only a limited number of reasons police officers can search your car when they have pulled you over:
- You consented to the search
- The officers have a valid search warrant
- The officers reasonably believe searching your car is necessary for their own protection (e.g., they think you have a weapon)
- The officers have probable cause to believe they will find evidence of a crime in your car
- You have been arrested and they search based on that arrest
- The police have impounded your car, in which case they can search it to take an inventory
That’s all. According to the U.S. Constitution, police are not allowed to subject us to “unreasonable” searches.
Should I resist an illegal search?
Other than making it clear to the officers that you do not consent to any searches, you should be very careful. Even if you believe your rights are being violated, you should not set yourself against the police.
If you are charged with a crime, the police can’t use any evidence against you if they obtained it through an illegal search. A decent criminal defense attorney can use this principle to protect you.
If you are not arrested or charged with a crime, you may wonder what to do once the police let you go. If there was a clear abuse of power or other misconduct, you may want to file a civil rights lawsuit against the officers. Doing so could hold the officers to account and compensate you for the violation of your rights.
In the past, it was very hard to sue police officers for violating individual civil rights because officers were routinely given immunity from lawsuits. The New Mexico Civil Rights Act prohibits officers from using this form of immunity. However, as the NMCRA was only passed in 2021, it is still new to the courts.
Don’t dwell on the situation too long. There are time limits to these claims. A civil rights attorney can listen to your story and let you know if you have a strong case.