Understanding Consent to Search: How to Protect Your Rights at a Traffic Stop in North Carolina

If you have ever been driving along and suddenly see a police car’s blue light in the rearview mirror, you know how unsettling it can be. You may have a pretty good idea why you are being pulled over; but, then again, you may not be aware of the reason for the officer pulling you over. What if you are coming from a dinner where you had some alcohol to drink or imbibed in some other way? Did you inadvertently cross the center line? Did you fail to fully stop at an intersection? Were you going over the speed limit? When you add the alcohol factor, it can be a situation that could escalate quickly. 

When this is the case, the officer may suspect that you have empty alcohol bottles or drugs in the car and ask for your consent to search the vehicle. There are specific protocols the officer must use in asking for your consent and searching your car. Most people aren’t clear about the law and, therefore, aren’t sure what their rights are in this situation. At Sandman, Finn, and Fitzhugh Attorneys at Law in Raleigh, we have experience with clients who feel their rights have been encroached upon during traffic stops. If this has happened to you, we can help.

To assist you in understanding more fully about your rights at a traffic stop when you are asked to consent to a search, we are sharing a closer look at the laws and what your rights are in this situation.

What Is a Consent to Search?

When a police officer has “probable cause,” they can legally search your vehicle without a warrant. Probable cause means the officer has reason to believe that you are participating in criminal activity or that there is evidence of a crime in your vehicle. Examples of probable cause include seeing something in plain view, like a gun or drugs, smelling marijuana or alcohol in your vehicle, or observing your bloodshot eyes or an odor of alcohol.

Consent means the officer asks if he/she can search your vehicle and you respond that they can. When you consent, the police officer is permitted to do so.

Should You Consent to Search?

You should not consent to the search of your vehicle because, when you do consent, you are then waiving your right to challenge the search if evidence is found that can be used against you. Your refusal to permit a search without a search warrant cannot be used against you later in court. 

What Should You Do If You Are Pulled Over?

If you are pulled over while driving, it’s imperative for you to stay calm. Pull over as quickly as it is safe to do so. Make sure that you aren’t obstructing traffic, then turn off your engine. Place your hands on the steering wheel. Passengers should also keep their hands visible. 

It’s not in your best interest to argue or resist. Law enforcers are trained and ready to respond at a moment’s notice if they fear they are in danger, so remain calm and avoid making any sudden movements.

After the officer asks for documents, provide them. Do not reach into your pocket or the glove compartment unannounced, as this could cause an escalation. 

What Are Your Rights?

If you are driving a vehicle and stopped by a police officer, you are required to produce your driver’s license and/or identification upon his/her request. If you fail to comply, it is a Class 2 misdemeanor and carries a maximum penalty of up to 60 days in jail.

That being said, you have the right to remain silent. In North Carolina, there is no “stop and identify” statute. Note that, as a general rule, this means you are not required to provide your name or produce identification when you are stopped by police for no reason, UNLESS you are operating a vehicle. So, if you are walking down the street, police cannot stop you and demand to know who you are or to see documentation of your identity.

Be sure to memorize or write down either badge or patrol car numbers. If there are any witnesses, get their contact information if you believe your rights have been violated. Capturing video is also within your rights. Video is hard to dispute in court. Even though the legal doctrine of “qualified immunity” makes it difficult for civilians to prevail in lawsuits against the police, don’t hesitate to report any misconduct that you experience. 

If The Police Search Your Car

The reason for the stop may be for something minor; still, the officer may look in the car for signs of illegal activity or contraband, to see if something is in plain view. If the officer has a reason to think he/she is in imminent danger, they may search the car. But, if they ask you to open your trunk or glove compartment, you can decline unless they have a search warrant. That being said, they can search your glove compartment if they have reason to believe you are concealing a weapon. If you consent to the search, you have waived your rights. If you do not consent to a search and the officer searches your vehicle anyway, any evidence they find may not be used against you.

If You Are Arrested

The police officer will read you your Miranda rights when they arrest you, but they don’t have to do so immediately upon arrest. The officer may delay giving you the Miranda warning. If so, you still have the right to remain silent. 

When you are arrested, the officer will put you in handcuffs and search you right then. They will place you in a patrol car. Once you are transported to a local jail, you will be processed by identification, fingerprinting, photographing, and issuing one or more citations. The citation indicates a specific charge(s) and the date on which you need to be in court.

You could be in police custody for several hours, you could be held in jail overnight, or kept in jail over the weekend before bail is set. You may also be released on your own recognizance, which means that you’ve signed a promise to appear at your court hearing. Or, you can be released without charges.

If You Are Illegally Detained

If you are illegally detained (i.e., police arrest you without probable cause), you should file a police misconduct claim or contact a civil rights legal defense organization when you can. Until you feel it is safe to file a claim, it is in your best interest to continue a calm, nonargumentative posture and do not resist. Otherwise, you can cause the situation to escalate, which can result in a dangerous event, or have additional charges put on you.

Miranda Rights

Miranda rights are the rights of suspects upon lawful arrest, including:
  • The right to remain silent. You do not have to answer questions regarding what you are doing, where you live, where you were born, whether you are a U.S. citizen, or how you entered the country. If you want to exercise this right, all you have to do is say so.
  • The right to a government-appointed lawyer. You have the right to seek legal representation and must be given the chance to call a lawyer after your arrest. If you can’t afford an attorney, you may be appointed a public defender. Police cannot listen to the phone call with your lawyer, but they can listen to phone calls with other parties.

Know Your Rights in NC

If you have been pulled over and believe your rights have been violated, you should contact our Raleigh defense lawyers. We will develop a specific strategy for your individual situation. We have the experience you need to fight for your rights and get you back to your life. Contact us 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for a free consultation at (919) 887-8040 or fill out our contact form to get started.