You have a right to withhold your consent when police ask to search your clothing, home, car or belongings, although many people don’t realize it.
Police almost always ask for consent before searching because consent simplifies the issue of whether a search was justified. If they were to search you without probable cause to believe a crime was in progress or had been committed, the evidence they found might not be admissible in court. If they obtain your consent to the search, however, the evidence is usually admissible.
Knowing that, do you think you would tell an officer that you don’t consent to a search? Imagine doing it. You would be under a great deal of social pressure to consent. From the moment we’re born, we’re trained to obey authority figures. It isn’t easy to look them in the eye and say “no.”
In fact, it’s probably even harder than you imagine. Two professors, one in law and one in organizational behavior, recently published a study on the problem of saying no to authority figures. They did a series of experiments that showed how difficult it might be to withhold your consent to a search.
In one experiment, people were offered a cash bonus if they could predict what percentage of Americans say yes when police ask to search their cars. After deliberation, the group estimated that about 65 percent of drivers would consent. In reality, at least 90 percent of drivers consent — including many who have good reason not to.
Would you mind unlocking your phone so I can examine it?
In another experiment, a large group was presented with this request: “Before we begin the study, can you please unlock your phone and hand it to me? I’ll just need to take your phone outside of the room for a moment to check for some things.”
A second group was asked to imagine they had been asked the same thing. Only 14% of the participants thought a reasonable person would hand over their unlocked phone to a relative stranger, even one in an authority position. Nevertheless, 28% said they would probably allow the search.
How many in the first group actually handed over their phones? Ninety-seven percent. This shows that social pressure can be a lot stronger than people imagine it would be.
Practice saying no to voluntary searches
If you prefer the police not search you or your things, you may have to practice saying no. You are under no obligation to consent to searches. Say it aloud: “I do not consent to any searches.”
They may search anyway. Don’t try to interfere. Instead, explain what happened to your criminal defense attorney.