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Should You Consent When Police Ask to Search You?

The Short Answer: NO. You have nothing to gain and everything to lose.

The Details:

If you have ever been stopped by the police, you have probably been asked whether you are in possession of any weapons or contraband (like drugs). Maybe you were just pulled over for speeding and you’re wondering why you are being asked about drugs or firearms. Maybe this officer thinks you are walking in a “known drug area” and suspects you have some drugs in your car, your pocket, or maybe your pack of cigarettes. At this point, almost everyone will deny carrying anything illegal.

Next, the officer is going to ask if he can search you, but most of the time it’s not a question. The officer might say “you don’t mind if I search your car do you?” Unfortunately, even people who KNOW they have something illegal in their house, their vehicle, or even in their pocket, will feel pressured and consent to that search.

Why? Well, first off, don’t be so hard on yourself if that has happened to you. For one thing, even completely law-abiding citizens who have done nothing illegal will be nervous and afraid when they encounter police. Second, keep in mind that officers are actually trained to get you to consent to searches. That’s right, while you were in school or at work, they were busy learning exactly what to say to overcome your free will. They are taught to put pressure on you, to choose words that imply it’s going to go very badly for you if you don’t consent, and to use their authority to make you give in and allow that search.

Don’t be afraid, the law is actually on your side. The 4 th Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. What that means for you is that you have a right NOT to be searched unless there is 1) a very specific set of “emergency” circumstances, 2) police go get a warrant, or 3) if you consent. That specific set of emergency circumstances often isn’t present and, while the law is ever-changing and seems to be getting broader in this area, it is still not all that common. So assume that in most cases the officer either has to get your consent or go get a warrant.

Real police work is time-consuming. To get a warrant the officer is going to have to get another officer to stay with you while he goes to fill out a warrant affidavit. Then he has to find a judge on duty who can review his affidavit, ask him questions, and decide whether there is probable cause for a search. So we are already talking about quite a bit of time and who knows if the judge is even going to grant it after all that work. What’s the quick fix? Just get you to agree to a search and skip all that other work.

If you don’t consent, you really haven’t made your situation worse and it can probably get a lot better. If you had something to hide in the first place, and you consent, the officer is going to find it for sure. If you don’t consent then he either has to get that warrant, call in the drug dog or search you anyway – which is illegal. If he threatens to get a drug dog, call his bluff. That is also going to take more time and they might not have one available (or even have one at all). Besides that, the longer they make you wait, the better your chances will be of suppressing evidence later in the legal process. If police search you without the warrant or consent, then an experienced defense attorney may be able to get the evidence resulting from that search suppressed. Suppressing the evidence can substantially weaken the State’s prosecution or even lead to your case being dismissed.

So if you have something in a place that society expects to be private – such as your home, car, backpack, purse, pockets, etc. there really is no reason to consent to a search. If you consent, and they find it, you will be arrested for sure. If you say “NO” then the officer might be lazy enough just to let you go and move on to the next person who hasn’t read this article.

Give yourself a fighting chance and assert your rights, say "NO."