What can you do if a police officer asks to search your vehicle or your home? Is it really a request that you can refuse, or is the officer just phrasing it politely? This isn’t always clear, and perhaps intentionally so. In some cases, police don’t want you to know that you can refuse a search that isn’t compelled by a warrant.
But even if you know that you have the legal right to refuse a police request to search your property, would you refuse such a request if asked? Many of us believe we would refuse on principle, but recent research suggests that saying no is harder than we might think.
An upcoming article in the Yale Law Journal was written by two professors who studied “consent searches” (meaning those conducted by request and without a warrant). It found that most people, when approached with a polite, face-to-face request from someone of seeming authority, would consent to acts that were intrusive to their privacy.
For the study cited in the article, two groups of participants were faced with a similar scenario. Imagine showing up to participate in a study. When you arrive, a researcher says: “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.”
The first group of study subjects was simply asked to imagine the scenario and to predict how likely people were to comply with the request. They predicted that only 14 percent of people would comply, and only 28 percent of that group said that they would personally comply.
The second group of study subjects was not given the scenario hypothetically. They were actually asked by researchers to hand over their phone. Amazingly, 97 percent of group members granted the request.
If that many people complied with a researcher’s request to invade their privacy, how much harder would it be to deny a request from a police officer?
If you are ever approached by police and they ask to search you, your vehicle or your property, please keep the following in mind: Once you give your consent, any evidence police obtain during a search is admissible in court. Even if you have nothing to hide, that kind of intrusion should not be taken lightly. It may be worth telling the officers to come back only after they have convinced a judge to issue a search warrant.