A common question we receive at Ludlum Law Firm is, “When should I refuse consent for an officer to search my car?” The answer is “always.” The Fourth Amendment right not to be subjected to unreasonable search and seizures requires probable cause for an officer to search your car without a warrant during a traffic stop. Probable cause means that an officer must reasonably believe that a crime has been committed. Probable cause may be established if an officer sees in plain view an illegal weapon, alcohol, drugs, smells marijuana or, if a certified K9 alerts as to the presence of drugs. But without probable cause or a warrant, an officer cannot search your vehicle without consent.
Many people say that there is no reason to refuse consent if you have nothing to hide. But even innocent people should think twice before giving consent to search their vehicle. Remember, you are not penalized for refusing consent, but once you give it, you may lose valuable rights to challenge the results of the search that could lead to a criminal conviction.
You never know what your passenger has placed in your car or in a bag that is in your car. If illegal drugs or contraband are located in a bag that belongs to a passenger in your car, there is a real possibility that you will be charged with possession of those illegal drugs even though you may not have known it was in your car. Also, it is possible that after loaning your car to a friend or family member, some form of illegal substance or weapon could get left in your car and found after you give consent to search because “you had nothing to hide.”
Other reasons to refuse consent to search is that it is not uncommon for vehicles to be damaged after a thorough search by removing interior panels, carpeting, and dashboard. Also, having to stand on the side of the road while multiple officers search your vehicle can damage your reputation in the community. Anyone who witnesses the search will automatically assume that you are involved in some form of illegal activity.
Many people consent to searches because they do not want to wait when the officer tells them that they are going to get a warrant. In an effort to get this embarrassing event over with, they consent because again, “they have nothing to hide.” The truth is that this is typically a bluff and a tactic the officer is using to try and obtain consent because they don’t have probable cause to search.
If an officer asks for consent to search your vehicle, you should always refuse whether or not you have anything to hide. The U.S. Constitution protects you from illegal search and seizures and this is not a protection that you should surrender casually. The key is to stay calm and not give the officer any reason to believe that you are acting nervous or suspicious. You have the right to refuse consent and exercising this right cannot be held against you. Even though an officer needs clear and unequivocal consent to search your car (State v. Pearson, 348 N.C. 272 (1988)), it is best to be concise and clear when you deny consent, but do it respectfully. A simple “no sir or mam, I do not give consent to search my car” will do.
If you find yourself in a situation when an officer is asking for consent to search and you are not sure what to do, call an attorney. Also, if you feel that you have been subjected to an illegal search or seizure, contact Ludlum Law Firm so that you can be sure that you get quality and professional representation and that your rights are protected.