Can a cop take your keys?
Yes, a police officer has the legal right to take your car keys in certain situations. The most common reasons include suspected driving under the influence (DUI), reckless driving, driving without a valid license, or if the vehicle needs to be impounded for evidence collection.
Reasons a cop may take your keys
If a cop suspects you of drunk driving, they can legally require you to undergo field sobriety testing. This usually follows observations such as swerving, driving at inconsistent speeds, or failure to follow traffic signals properly. If you show signs of impairment during testing, the officer has sufficient probable cause to take your keys and arrest you for DUI.
Similarly, if the officer witnesses you driving recklessly by speeding, making illegal turns, ignoring traffic devices, or cutting off other cars, they may pull you over and ask for your keys. Reckless driving shows inability or unwillingness to operate a vehicle safely. The cop would likely take your keys to prevent you from continuing to endanger yourself and others on the road.
It is also reasonable cause for an officer to seize keys if they discover the driver does not have a valid license. Driving without a license is illegal. And similar to reckless operation, it poses risks when improperly licensed individuals get behind the wheel. The officer would take the keys to keep the unlicensed driver from continuing to drive illegally without a license.
Vehicle needs to be impounded
Finally, if the cop needs to impound the vehicle for legal reasons, such as collecting forensic evidence of a crime, they will take the keys to secure the car. With the keys in their possession, the vehicle can then be safely towed away without worry of it being accessed or driven from the scene prematurely.
Process for a cop taking your keys
There is a defined process cops follow to properly obtain car keys under each scenario.
Field sobriety tests for suspected DUI
If pulled over on suspicion of drunk driving, the officer would first administer a series of field sobriety tests. These assess vital signs, motor skills, and cognitive function to determine if the driver is legally impaired. If the driver fails these tests, the officer would then formally place them under arrest for DUI and take their keys as evidence.
Impounding the vehicle
In any situation where the vehicle needs to be impounded, the officer must call for a tow truck to come retrieve it. Once the tow truck arrives, the officer will conduct an inventory search of the car, sealing items of value for safekeeping during the impound period. Only then would they release the keys to the tow truck driver to facilitiate transport of the vehicle back to a secure holding lot.
Obtaining a warrant
If the officer believes obtaining the keys is vital to securing necessary evidence for an investigation, they may first obtain a judicial warrant. This legal document, signed by a judge, legally compels the driver to surrender their keys to assist in the investigation. This extra step protects the rights of the driver against unlawful seizure of property without due process.
What to do if a cop takes your keys
Getting pulled over and having your keys taken away can be scary and frustrating. Here is what you should do in this situation:
First and foremost, always cooperate politely and respectfully. Arguing or refusing to comply once the officer has stated their intent to take your keys will only make matters worse legally.
Ask for additional information
You should, however, request further details about why the officer needs to take your keys. They legally must provide justification, typically in the form of probable cause through observation of unsafe driving, suspicion of DUI, or other reasons permitting seizure of keys.
Follow up on the vehicle
If they impound your vehicle, ask many questions about where it is being towed so that you can promptly follow up about recovering it later. Having the tow yard’s contact information is essential.
Consult a lawyer if charges are filed
Finally, if faced with legal charges like DUI or reckless endangerment, contact an attorney as soon as possible. They can advise you on next steps in disputing the charges and getting your driving privileges reinstated.
Getting your keys and vehicle back
The steps required to retrieve your keys and vehicle depend on the circumstances under which they were confiscated:
After field tests
If you undergo roadside DUI testing but ultimately pass and show sufficient sobriety, the officer will have no grounds to continue holding your keys. They would return them and let you drive away, potentially with a warning or traffic citation for the initial violation.
After vehicle impound
You will need to go in person to the designated tow lot and provide ownership verification to reclaim your vehicle after impound. Fees may apply for both the towing and storage before you can recover your automobile and keys.
With license issues
Any license-related matters will need to be resolved with the DMV directly before an officer will release keys back to you. This means taking steps like getting a valid license or resolving outstanding tickets or violations.
After warrants executed
If your vehicle was impounded related to a criminal investigation, you may need to wait until the police or courts decide the vehicle is no longer necessary evidence. A lawyer can petition for its release if delays begin affecting your case negatively in the legal system.
Protecting your rights
To protect both your rights and your safety during interactions with law enforcement, it is smart to remember:
Consenting to searches
If asked, you typically have the right to refuse consent for an officer to search your person or vehicle. However, outright refusal could elevate suspicion unnecessarily. You can simply ask if the search is required by law or if you are free to go without consenting.
Always speak and act respectfully toward officers, even if you disagree with their actions. Anything confrontational or threatening only provides further justification for detaining and charging you. Politely collect their identifying information and save disputes for court.
Following up promptly
After any police encounter involving seizure of possessions or legal charges, promptly consult an attorney who specializes in criminal law or DUIs depending on your specific circumstances. Quick action increases chances of getting charges reduced or dropped.
Having your vehicle keys taken away by a police officer is upsetting but may be legally justified depending on each unique scenario. By staying calm and cooperative in the moment before following up assertively later with official channels, you can best protect both your rights and your driving privileges if faced with this situation. Remember to always drive sober, maintain a valid license, and operate vehicles safely and legally to avoid encounters with law enforcement altogether.
Can I get arrested if I refuse to hand over my keys?
Yes, refusing to comply with lawful orders from a police officer may result in additional charges for resisting, obstruction of justice, or similar violations on top of any original infractions. Simply refusing to hand over keys is not advisable and will likely make any legal situation much worse.
What if I’m asked to take a breathalyzer test?
Most states have implied consent laws which mean drivers implicitly agree to sobriety testing when granted a license. Refusing a breathalyzer when lawfully requested by an officer can result in automatic suspension of your license for a year or more, even without a conviction. So it’s best to comply unless you speak to an attorney who objects for some case-specific reason.
Can I retrieve items from my car before it gets towed away?
Usually, yes. The officer must perform an inventory search prior to impounding the vehicle, at which point you would typically be able to safely gather any necessary personal items from the car before the tow truck takes it away. This accompanies the officer taking your keys.
Is fighting a DUI charge advisable?
consultation with a DUI lawyer is highly recommended when faced with drunk driving charges. An experienced attorney can often negotiate reduced charges or diversion programs to avoid lasting impacts on your criminal record. While challenging a DUI charge can be difficult, consulting a lawyer maximizes your chances of the best possible outcome under the circumstances.
Do I have to pay fees to get my impounded car back?
Yes, typically you will have to pay towing and storage fees that accrue by the day at tow lots before you can recover your impounded vehicle. The amount can vary widely but often totals hundreds or thousands of dollars after just a short period of days. This is on top of any ticketing fees or legal expenses that may accompany the incident.
Can my car get searched without my consent?
If an officer claims probable cause that evidence of a crime may be inside, they can legally search your vehicle without consent. Probable cause may arise from smells (like alcohol or marijuana), observations of contraband in plain sight, witness accounts of criminal activity involving the vehicle, or other supporting information. Otherwise, consent is typically required for a warrantless search.