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A Maryland traffic stop can be a nerve-wracking experience. In the United States, the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures.

Understanding when law enforcement can and cannot search your car during a traffic stop helps safeguard your rights while reducing the odds of you facing unnecessary legal trouble.

Consent to search

Law enforcement officials may move forward with searching your car if you give them your voluntary consent. Remember that you have the right to refuse this request without fear of retaliation and that it is up to you whether to allow the search to take place.

Probable cause

Another reason for a car search is the existence of probable cause. If an officer has a reasonable belief that a crime took place or that there is evidence of a crime inside your car, he or she can search it without your consent. This can include smelling illegal substances like drugs or alcohol, observing suspicious behavior or noticing contraband in plain sight.

Plain view doctrine

If law enforcement officials see illegal items or evidence in plain view during a traffic stop, they can use that as a basis for a search. For instance, if they spot a weapon or drugs on the passenger seat, they can search your car without needing your consent.

Exigent circumstances

In certain urgent situations, law enforcement can search your car without a warrant or consent. Exigent circumstances might include concerns for public safety or the need to prevent evidence destruction, among other possible examples.

Statistics show that while only about 3% of traffic stops lead to vehicle searches, about 20% of those vehicle searches result in “hits,” or law enforcement officials discovering contraband.