Being stopped by the police is never a pleasant experience. However, when a routine traffic stop turns into a search, things can escalate quickly. There are specific rules and procedures that govern whether or not an officer can search your car during a traffic stop. Being aware of these guidelines can help you protect your rights and understand your legal options for defense if the search results in criminal charges.

If you are stopped by a police officer while driving, the officer is generally allowed to ask you to get out of the car and conduct a pat down search of your person. While this is usually done to make sure you don’t have any weapons on you or anything else that might harm the officer, any drugs or illicit materials found are also considered part of a legal search.

The rules for searching your car are slightly different. In general, officers can only search your car during a traffic stop if the area is within reaching distance of you at the time of the stop. Again, this is to make sure that you are not able to get a weapon hidden in the vehicle and use it on the officer.

The other instance where officers may search the car is if there is the reasonable belief that “evidence of the offense of arrest” is present in the car. This means that if you are arrested for a drug charge, the police are likely able to search the car if they believe drugs are inside. If a search is not conducted correctly, any evidence found may be ruled inadmissible in court.

Source: FindLaw, “Illegal Search and Seizure FAQs,” accessed May 13, 2016