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In Washington, police cannot search a car without a search warrant. A warrant must be obtained from a court, and police must carry out the search within a certain designated time frame.
In 2012, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that police must obtain a search warrant in order to search a vehicle. Even if the police have reason to suspect that a vehicle contains evidence of a crime, they still must obtain a warrant before proceeding with a search. Specifically, in the 2012 case State v. Snapp, the Washington Supreme Court found that searching a car for evidence of a crime when the driver has already been arrested is illegal under Article I, Section 7 of the state constitution.
Some states allow police to search a car without a warrant if there is probable cause to believe the car contains evidence of a crime, but in Washington, not even probable cause makes a search without a warrant legal. However, without probable cause, police cannot obtain a search warrant. Washington law defines probable cause as “having more evidence for than against; a reasonable belief that a crime has or is being committed.”
If a police officer does not have a warrant, he or she cannot search the car without your permission. In such a case, you may respectfully decline to have your car or person searched; though in some cases, police are allowed to perform a quick pat-down of your clothes in order to check for weapons.
There are certain conditions under which police may search a car without a warrant: such as if immediate action is required to protect someone or prevent evidence from being destroyed. These are known as “exigent circumstances.”
If the police stop your car, you should remain in your vehicle and maintain a calm, respectful attitude. Actions like getting out of your car without being asked or reaching underneath your seat can be construed as threatening. Turn on the interior light if it’s dark outside, and keep your hands on the steering wheel in plain sight.
If the officer asks to see your license, registration, or proof of insurance, the law requires you to comply. Do not argue with the officer, and restrain the urge to complain or resist. If you feel you have been treated unfairly, you should take your complaint to traffic court rather than argue with the police at the scene. Remember that anything you say can be used against you.
While you must show your license and registration if asked, you do have the right to refuse to answer any questions. If the police ask to search your car and do not show you a warrant, you can refuse. If the officer says he or she has a search warrant, you should ask to see the warrant before letting him or her search your car. Be polite, but make it clear that you do not consent to a search.
If the police give you a ticket, you should sign it to avoid arrest. Then, if you feel the ticket is unfair, you can argue it later in traffic court. Likewise, if the police ask you to take a blood, urine, or breath test, you should comply. Refusing to do so can cause your license to be suspended.
If you are arrested, you should ask why then ask for a lawyer immediately. You have the right to know the reason for your arrest, and you have the right to a lawyer’s counsel.