If you have been pulled over for a routine traffic stop recently, you may have been asked by the officer if he or she could search your vehicle. It is becoming more and more common for police officers, especially Highway Patrol Troopers if you are stopped on any of the state’s major interstates, to request permission to search your vehicle during a routine traffic stop. You would not believe how many of our clients give consent to search their vehicle knowing they have unlawful items such as drugs in the vehicle! I guess they think that if they give their consent, the officer will think they have nothing to hide and will not actually do the search. Boy, are they wrong! A cop will take advantage of any opportunity to conduct a search if you give it to him or her, so DON’T!!! Pursuant to the 4th Amendment of the United States Constitution, ALL citizens have the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures unless the police have a warrant; however, one of the recognized exceptions to this rule is if the driver of the vehicle gives their consent to the search. So pursuant to the 4th amendment, if an officer asks to search your vehicle, you have every right to say NO!!! Now that you know you have that right, USE IT!!!
Now, the officer may not go away easily and just immediately let you go on your way. He may employ some “persuasive techniques” instead–cop talk for unnecessary pressure and coercion, to try and get you to consent. You may hear anything from “Gee, if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to worry about it. I promise it will only take a minute, and then you’ll be on your way” to something a bit more aggressive, such as “If you don’t consent to a search, I’ll have no other choice but to call for a canine unit (drug dog), and if that dog hits on your vehicle, we are gonna tear your car apart.” (I will address drug dog sniffs during routine traffic stops in a later post, so stay tuned). Whether the coercion is subtle or blatant, DON’T give in!! Stick to your guns and exercise your rights. Tell the cop “NO,” and be very clear that you are not giving him consent. Another ploy used by many officers is to ask you for your consent in such a way that they can interpret your answer whichever way they want to in order to try and justify a search. Here is my personal favorite: “Sir, do you mind if I search your vehicle?” That’s a loaded question because if you say “No” (in your mind meaning that “No” he cannot search your vehicle), the officer will interpret that as “No, you don’t mind, so I am free to search.” If you say “Yes” (in your mind thinking “Yes, I do mind if you search my vehicle”), the officer will interpret that as “Yes, you can search my vehicle.” So you must make your intentions crystal clear. If you are asked for consent to search your vehicle, be specific and tell the officer, “No, officer, you cannot search my vehicle,” or “No, officer, I do not consent to the search of my vehicle.” If he or she asks again, simply tell him the same answer and ask that you be allowed to proceed on your way. If the officer asks why you don’t want to consent to a search, there is no need for you to tell him why you don’t want him to search. Just tell him “NO” and again ask that you be allowed to proceed on your way. In most cases the officer will let you go. In the event that he or she conducts a search anyway, you have set yourself up to challenge the search and any evidence the search may uncover. On the other hand, if you give your consent to the search, you have effectively given up your right to challenge the search, and your only recourse is to argue that your consent was not voluntarily and was coerced by the officer. I like making the first argument better.
Another one of my favorites is the question, “Can I take a quick look in your vehicle?” The key point here is that an officer can always look into your car from the outside. It’s called the “plain view doctrine,” and it’s another one of the recognized exceptions to the warrant rule. So when you think he is simply asking to “look”–meaning peer–into your car through the window from the outside, he is really asking to “look” through your car and conduct a full-blown search. So don’t be fooled by the language the officer uses and think you are limiting his or her ability to search, once again, just SAY NO!!!
So, the long and short of the story is, if you are asked to give consent to search your vehicle, you have the right to just say “NO!” Be clear and stick to your guns! If the officer searches anyway and you get arrested, you will have given us an argument to try to suppress the evidence and get your charges dismissed.