Would you let a stranger in a lab coat search through your phone? What about a police officer? How about if you had a good reason to refuse, such as evidence of a crime?
Questions like these come up all the time in criminal defense. That’s because both the U.S. and Iowa constitutions prohibit unreasonable searches and seizures. That’s supposed to mean that, in general, police have to get a warrant before searching or arresting you. However, there are a wide variety of exceptions to the warrant requirement.
One of the most important exceptions is when the police get the person’s consent to search. As long as the consent is voluntary, the police are free to search as much as they like once they have it — and all the evidence can be used in court.
When considering whether someone’s consent is voluntary, the courts generally ask whether a reasonable person would have felt free to decline.
But would a reasonable person ever really feel free to decline a request by the police? It certainly doesn’t seem that way. According to a law professor and a professor of organizational behavior who recently performed a study on the subject, over 90% of drivers consent to police searches when asked — even when they have something to hide.
There’s a great deal of power in social pressure, as the two professors’ research indicates. For example, in one experiment, the researchers asked a group of study participants what they would do if an experimenter asked them to unlock their phones and allow the phones to be taken from the room for examination.
Only 14% of the participants thought that a reasonable person would allow that. At most, 28% said they would allow their unlocked phones to examined by a stranger.
Yet when the researchers asked a second group to allow their phones to be unlocked and examined, 97% actually complied.
The researchers asked a third group to consider whether reasonable people would allow a search of their cars at the request of a police officer. They guessed that only about 65% of drivers would agree. As we said, over 90% of drivers comply.
You have the right to refuse consent to a search
If you are stopped by the police, you generally won’t know if they have the legal authority to search you. Don’t worry about that — leave it in the hands of your attorney.
What you should remember is that you don’t have any obligation to give your consent for a search. It may be awkward or even terrifying, but say the words when the officer asks: “I do not consent to any searches.”