I fought the law...
November 27, 2010 5:27 AM   Subscribe

Have you ever refused to give permission to a (US) police officer for searching your vehicle after a routine traffic stop? If so, what happened?

Last night, while driving home 8-hours from my in-laws house, I was pulled over in rural Virginia for going 15 miles over the posted speed limit. Remarkably, the police officer let me go with just a warning. As we drove away, and I meticulously maintained the proper speed for the remainder of the trip, my wife and I contemplated alternative endings. The conversation turned to whether we would have allowed the police officer to search our vehicle or not had she asked. I was of the opinion that since we had nothing contraband, I was willing to let the police woman do the search just to avoid further hassle. My wife figures that a person should never submit to such a thing, and should never give up any rights, ever, period.

So I asked her how she thought that refusal would play out. I realize that a whole range of things could have happened -- everything from nothing, to the officer changing her mind and giving me a ticket after all, to the officer calling for backup and keeping us sitting on the side of the road for hours. What I was wondering is if there was anyone out there who had actually been in a similar experience, refused the search, and how it played out.
posted by crunchland to Law & Government (19 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Years ago I was a passenger in a car that got pulled over. When the cop asked to search it the driver declined, and the cop pretty much just shrugged his shoulders and walked away.
posted by dortmunder at 6:00 AM on November 27, 2010

My friend and I got pulled over in 1998 (speeding) and cops asked for permission to search his car. He politely refused, and they then said that the tiny pocket knife on his keychain constitutes a deadly weapon, and they searched the car anyway. just a random pic to show you what it was like, not the actual knife
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 6:22 AM on November 27, 2010

I have a friend who got pulled over for speeding and declined a search of his car. The cop made him wait on the side of the road for half an hour, then let him go.
posted by donajo at 6:28 AM on November 27, 2010

When cops asked to search my car I was all like "go ahead." They looked at the piles of empty bags of fast food and soda cans, on the bottom of my car and decided not to.

When they asked to search a friends car when he got stopped, he declined, they pulled out the "we have reason to believe you are transporting drugs" line and arrested him and searched his car anyways. He had no drugs but was detained for 2 hours or so while drug sniffing dogs and curious cops went over every inch of his car.
posted by Max Power at 7:01 AM on November 27, 2010

This is a really, really complicated question to answer and I am not a lawyer. There are a lot of variables involved with "What should I do when an officer asks to search my car?" and basically, from this basic question we get a branching tree of outcomes based on risk assessment.

Rights: You always have the right to say No. This right is protected by the Fourth Amendment. You can be the type of person who falls into the "use it or lose it" camp, or you can be in the "waiving rights is an option" camp, whether you do that to trade for convenience (as gjc says) or out of fear of consequences or because you think people with nothing to hide should be cooperative.

Risk: There is of course the risk of the officer finding contraband, but before that there is the risk of the officer escalating (which is time consuming). The officer needs probable cause to conduct a search, but only needs "reasonable suspicion" to call in the dogs to sniff the exterior of your car. Refusing a search has been held to constitute reasonable suspicion, so that can always happen. If the dog alerts, that is now probable cause for a search. So your risk assessment has to include: risk of contraband, risk of escalation, and how much you value your time vs. your constitutional rights.

Jurisdiction: This is where it gets tricky because when you drive, you commonly change jurisdictions. (More commonly, you probably have no idea about the laws in the jurisdictions where you travel every day anyway.) In some places moving violations may be something the officer can arrest you for on a whim, ie if you are speeding in a school zone that can be construed as "reckless driving" or if you're not wearing a seatbelt. So, saying No may escalate a warning to an arrest, in which case the officer can go ahead and search your car anyway. On the other hand, if you say yes, the officer may find contraband you didn't even know you had.

If you have absolutely zero risk of contraband (and gee, how many people call that one wrong...) then the outcomes are:

a) The officer shrugs, you drive away.
b) The officer gets annoyed, writes you a citation.
c) The officer gets hacked off, calls in the dogs.
d) The officer gets really hacked off, arrests you for the moving violation, and searches your car anyway.

In all scenarios except D, you are back on the road two minutes to two hours later.

In my estimation, A and B should not be a reason to say Yes. If I am guilty of the violation, I will happily trade my warning for a citation as the cost of exercising my Fourth Amendment rights. People generally say Yes to a search because they want to avoid C and they don't know if they are somewhere where D can happen.

I am an enormous fan of the Fourth Amendment so when I know the laws where I am I automatically say No. I am willing to trade the risk of A, B and C to preserve legal rights and am confident D isn't going to apply. That's my choice, and I'm OK with the potential consequences. When I am somewhere I don't know the answer, I ask. "Can you arrest me for speeding / failure to signal / unbuckled seatbelt in this jurisdiction? No? Then I do not consent to the search." If they say yes, I consent because I don't like my odds in Law Enforcement Roulette.

I would like to say that I have never had dogs called even when I have not consented. I am white and female, for the record. My rules apply when I am the driver, so your rules should apply when you are driving and your wife's when she is driving, as the risk is hers.

TLDR: So the worst case scenario depends on where you are and what's in your car. See Nolo. In my experience, there are officers who will scare the pants off you with the threat of consequences from C, ala this video, but that is contingent on them finding contraband. Obviously in the scenario, if the dogs are not going to find anything, my feeling is: let them call for the dogs.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:11 AM on November 27, 2010 [24 favorites]

Yes, I've refused a search. The cop searched anyway and my charges got thrown out because of this.
posted by schyler523 at 7:26 AM on November 27, 2010 [8 favorites]

It seems to me that the question here is very simply, "Have you ever refused a search? What happened?" and not "Should I let them search" or "How do you feel about police searches" or anything else.

I too was expecting a bunch of stories about people who refused a search. Mine is pretty simple: I was pulled over for speeding late at night, and I guess being a young sketchy teenage-looking kid my cop was very insistent on searching my car.

Cop: "Anything in there that you're not supposed to have?"
Me: "No sir."
Cop: "So you're telling me that if I took a look in there, I'm not going to find anything?"
Me: "No sir."
Cop: "So you wouldn't mind if I took a look, then?"
Me [trembling]: "I'm sorry but you don't have my permission to do that."
[awkward pause]
Cop: "Alright well uh...you are absolutely allowed to do that. I'll just go write your ticket now then."

The rest of the process was pretty brief - no call for backup, no arguing, no intimidation. I probably lucked out because he seemed like a pretty nice guy despite being very stern in his questioning. I'd be interested in hearing from people who dealt with more hostile police officers to see what worst case scenarios look like.
posted by windbox at 7:35 AM on November 27, 2010

I've done this.

A few years ago I got pulled over by the Military Police (this is back when we still had MPs in New Orleans acting as regular street cops) on my way to a poetry reading. They said I ran a yellow light -- not sure what that means, I think it may have had something to do with my small brown friend from El Salvador who was riding shotgun with me. Anyway they immediately ordered us out of the car, had us on the hood, were going through our pockets and such, and somewhere along the line they asked if they could search the car.

I said "well, I don't think you have probable cause, so no thank you," or something very close to that. I don't remember the officer's exact response, but there weren't any repercussions or anything, he just moved on with the next thing he was going to do. He definitely had a quick look around when he was going to my glove box for my registration, sticking his hand into the cracks on the side of the seat and such. (For the record, I wasn't carrying any contraband so there would've been nothing to find, just a lot of inconvenience for me.)

In the end they let my friend and me go when the officer who was running the show realized that I smoked the same brand of cigarettes as him. It's a funny old world sometimes.

Anyway, I've done it, it worked, there wasn't any retribution. Though of course I'm white and male, so maybe that helped. YMMV.
posted by Scientist at 7:47 AM on November 27, 2010

Mod note: Whole bunch of comments removed. If this question is gonna be answerable and not just cop-argument and search-conjecture fodder, answers really need to be aimed at the "what were your actual experiences" thing here, not anything else.
posted by cortex (staff) at 8:08 AM on November 27, 2010

If you refuse a search it basically becomes a matter of "Are you worth the time?" If they have a reasonable suspicion they'll go through the whole routine, though it's my impression that they can't give you a ticket after a warning if you refuse a search that might not be the case. Really though you should always refuse a search.

An embarassing example: I was giving some drunks a ride home from a party (hadn't been drinking myself because I'd just gotten there) and we get pulled over because while I was buying gas my friends were wandering around being dumb. Basically the officer wanted to make sure I wasn't at the same place they were. I had pot in my vehicle, not a ton or anything but enough. The girl in the backseat dropped something (a lighter, or something, fuck only knows girl was wasted) when we got pulled over, cop thought she was hiding something and asked for permission to search the vehicle, I said no, she said yes.

"Well I'm the driver/owner and no."

"I have a reasonable suspicion that she might be hiding something so I will check that area of your vehicle."

Basically he searched the back didn't find anything wished us a good evening and off we went.

That's the only time it's come up, but you should really refuse all searches. Also, if you do get a ticket for refusing a search, at least for my friends that it has happened to, the judge will throw it out. Good judges take a dim view of retributive ticketing.
posted by Peztopiary at 8:21 AM on November 27, 2010

I was pulled over once for driving in a small southern town at night. The cop asked to search the car and I said no. They called in a drug dog and the handler threw a tennis ball at the my car, the dog chased it and the handler said that was a positive result. A team of cops spent 30 minutes in a very exhaustive search and then left. I was worried that they would cut open the seats or otherwise cause permanent damage to my mom's car but they didn't.

I strive to be the sort of person who doesn't ever give up any rights but it is difficult, especially when it is dark, you're alone and they have guns and a demonstrated ability to act with impunity. At least if you refuse the search and they plant something you will have a faint chance to have it thrown out in court.
posted by ChrisHartley at 8:29 AM on November 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

I've had my vehicle searched four times.
Three of those I was told that the MagLite, pocket knife, or 2x4 visible inside the car could be considered a weapon, so they would be searching the car. I was never asked for permission.
The fourth time, I did decline, and they had me wait on the curb while they called a drug dog. The cop with the dog banged his palm on my truck until the dog put his paw on it. The cop informed me that the dog had found something and they proceeded to search the truck.
This was all in Oakland CA, and there was never anything in the vehicle for them to find.
posted by gally99 at 8:59 AM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

A friend of mine was stopped for whatever reason, and the cop suspected he had drugs on him. He asked to search; my friend refused. The cop insisted he smelled marijuana smoke (which was impossible) and not only searched the car but handcuffed my friend for nearly an hour. Nothing was found.
posted by lunalaguna at 9:37 AM on November 27, 2010

I've had my car searched numerous times. It seems like my experience won't apply to you, but actually I think it does.

I drive onto a military installation where I have to go through 3 separate security checkpoints - one to get on the base, one to get down to the "operational area", and another to get where my building is. Each one has a prominent sign proclaiming ENTRY INTO THIS AREA CONSTITUTES CONSENT TO [long list of pretty much whatever we want]

Even then, they phrase it as a question. May I look around inside your vehicle for weapons or contraband? My policy is, if they ASK the answer is "I'd rather you didn't". Which is vague right back at them. It's not refusal, but it's not a positive statement of permission. See, I don't really care if they search my car, but I want them to tell me unambiguously that I have no choice. It is surprising how much they do NOT want to do that.

Sometimes, I've had them say they have to search my car or I can't go in (which is most likely what the rule is at the outer-most gate). At the inner gates, refusal would most likely be cause for arrest. Most times, they don't even seem to care. It's as if they asked the question from a script and once they ask their job is done and I'm free to go with no search.

I suspect a trained officer can get enough information from your reaction and demeanor while answering in the majority of cases. At the security gates, the security guys have to physically touch your badge, look you in the face, and interact with you in some way. Nice day, isn't it, whatever. I don't think most people realize it (I tried it once), but you can't get through the gate silently or with a non-committal grunt. You have to say something back. They'll just ask you a question that requires an answer before letting you through.

Back to the real cops: I think the theory is, if you have nothing to hide in your car, the officer will know all he needs to know by the way you say no when he asks. Someone who knows there is something in the car will say no differently. Makes sense to me, anyway. Maybe he'll judge wrong from time to time, and someone will get a weird story.
posted by ctmf at 10:20 AM on November 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

If your local police department is run at the more micromanaging end of the spectrum where individual employees don't get much decision-making authority: Saying no will initiate a refused-search checklist that the cop must follow to the letter whether he likes it or not. He may not get to make the call locally to let you go, he may have to call his boss for permission. As Murphy's Law would have it, his boss will have just stepped out of the office, leaving you sitting on the curb until they find him.

That management style protects the cop from any responsibility in advance for having trampled your rights as a citizen! since the checklist was approved by someone way above his pay grade. Also, it makes him looks like an ass when common sense would work much better, and it TOTALLY hangs him out to dry if he accidentally deviates from the script.

Can you tell I've worked in places like that in the past?
posted by ctmf at 10:34 AM on November 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

I got pulled over in Texas or Oklahoma a couple of years ago for speeding. After the cop wrote up the ticket he asked me if I had any drugs or anything else in my car. I said no. He asked if he could search the car. I told him no. He asked why not. I told him that I didn't want him pawing through my stuff. He said ok and let me drive off.
posted by andoatnp at 11:51 AM on November 27, 2010

I have politely declined police searches in Arizona, Virginia (DC area), and California. None of these have ended badly.

Each time, I was pulled over for speeding. All three times, I deserved the ticket (and received it). I fit (and accept that I fit) the visual stereotype of "one who might be carrying weed". I am a longhair, often a few days from my last shave, always in a T-Shirt, and usually in a good mood. I also drive a fast car, sometimes faster than I should.

Consequently, I am more likely to be asked "You don't mind if I take a look in your trunk, do you?", to which I respond, "Yes, sir, I do mind. I do not and will not give consent for my vehicle to be searched". The "give consent" language is intentionally specific -- it's an unsubtle way of saying "I know that if I can't refuse this, you wouldn't be asking". It's important to say it politely, not confrontationally... the same way you'd explain that you decline to get the extra insurance on your rental car.

In Virginia and twice in California, this resulted in a simple "OK. Slow down out there". Most police officers are good professionals. I accept that it is their job to ask to search my car. They accept that it is my right to refuse. Once that transaction is complete, we all move on.

In Arizona, it resulted in a 30 minutes of "Have you got something to hide?" and "Then why wouldn't you let me take a peek?" back and forth (this was more than a few years ago, I was a much younger guy, and the cop was definitely attempting to intimidate me into consenting). Eventually, I said, "See my girlfriend in the front seat? We're on our way back to Northern California, and have another two days in the car before we're there. If you search the car, you'll find the vibrator in her duffel bag, she'll be mortified, and I'll have a very very long ride ahead of me. I'm not going to willingly let that happen." He sent us on our way.
posted by toxic at 12:36 PM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

My ex-husband and I got pulled over on a road trip for going a few miles over the speed limit. We declined to let the officer search our car. During the conversation, the officer revealed that he was interested in our vehicle because we were driving through rural Nevada with Washington plates, on a road that was part of a notorious British Columbia <> Nevada pot for meth trade route. We had a nice chat with the officer about the futility of the drug war and he let us go.

I think it helped a lot that we were white, obviously upper-middle class, polite but firm, and used the keywords "civil liberties" in our declination to be searched. If we were black, poor, and/or uneducated, I'm pretty sure it would have ended differently.
posted by Jacqueline at 6:19 PM on November 27, 2010

This story may be relevant here (it's not my personal experience, sorry, but it is the personal experience of a beat cop).

Secret Tape Has Police Pressing Ticket Quotas and the original Village Voice article that broke the story - The NYPD Tapes: Inside Bed-Stuy's 81st Precinct, which I learned about in the This American Life episode Right to Remain Silent.

Long story short: Police officer starts secretly taping everything that goes on during the day (just in case- if someone claims police brutality etc. he can demonstrate what really happened). He also recorded the morning meetings where their superiors told them to drive up the number of tickets they gave out or face consequences- even though it's illegal to put some sort of quota on an officer's activities. At one point they're told on Halloween to pull in people who may not even be drunk yet and just hold them and figure out what to charge them with later.

Even more disturbingly, they precinct was under-reporting and under-prosecuting real crimes (like rape) to make their numbers better.

Citizens in this precinct were given tons of tickets for things like "open container" - which never held up in court because the officer never specified what type of alcohol was in the open container, but they just did it to get their numbers up.

If an officer has you on the hook already for a broken tail-light or speeding, it may be that they'll try to escalate the ticket to a bigger ticket or an arrest just to get their numbers up. But this is just conjecture and hopefully the ask.me police will allow it.
posted by MesoFilter at 11:24 PM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

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