Can a police officer search a passenger in a car that has been stopped for speeding?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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Written by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer Jeffrey Johnson

UPDATED: Jun 29, 2022

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When police stop a car for speeding, passengers may only be searched under certain circumstances. Police must have either probable cause or reasonable suspicion to legally breach the privacy of the car’s occupants. However, passengers often do not enjoy any greater privacy than drivers. Passengers are considered by law to be in a “common venture” with the driver. This means that if the police have probable cause or reasonable suspicion that the driver has evidence of illegal activity on their person, the police may, in some instances, search the passenger along with the driver based on the same cause or suspicion.

Probable cause is a reasonable belief that a search of the person or property will turn up contraband or other evidence of a crime. The police may search the passenger of the car if they have probable cause to suspect there is evidence of an illegal activity on the person. Meanwhile, reasonable suspicion is a lower threshold to meet than probable cause. If the police lack probable cause but have a reasonable suspicion that someone has evidence of an illegal activity on their person, they may perform a pat-down of the person. The police may have reasonable suspicion if they believe that the person has committed or is about to commit a crime. The police may also pat someone down as a means of self-defense.

Simply getting pulled over for speeding will not give the police the legal grounds to search either the driver or the passenger. However, if the driver refused to pull over, forcing the police to pursue the car, this may give the police enough probable cause to search everyone in the car. Furthermore, the police may search any individual after a lawful arrest. For example, if the police pull the car over for speeding and see drugs lying on the floor of the car, they may legally arrest both the driver and passenger of the car, which automatically gives them the right to search both parties.

Because probable cause and reasonable suspicion are highly subjective, whether or not the police meet either of these standards is contestable in each and every case. If you have been arrested because the police found evidence of illegal activity on your person after a search, consult a criminal defense attorney immediately in order to ensure that your rights are protected.

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