How to refuse police searches

What to do if you’re stopped by police

Police may order the driver and any passengers out of the vehicle. If this happens, step out of the car. If they have reasonable suspicion to detain you, police may frisk the outside of your clothing to check for weapons, but only if they have a basis for suspecting you’re armed.

If police detain and frisk you, you have the right to clearly state your refusal to consent to the search. For example, you may say “Officer, I’m not resisting. I do not consent to this search.” But you should only verbally refuse. Never physically resist. Just touching an officer could get you tasered or beaten. You could also get a felony charge for assaulting a police officer.

Whether they frisk you or not, police may ask you a series of questions. They will probably include something like “You don’t mind if I have a look in your car?” Beware of that question: It’s the legal loophole that the officer wants to snare you in. (It might even sound like a command, but it’s technically a request.)

In response to such request, you may politely decline by saying “Officer, I know you’re just doing your job, but I don’t consent to searches.” Some officers may use their authority to make you feel obligated to prove your innocence by asking “What do you have to hide?” Don’t fall for such tricks. If necessary, repeat your refusal.

Remember: The 4th Amendment protects your right to refuse search requests, but it doesn’t require police to tell you about your right to refuse. In fact, consenting to searches automatically makes them legal in the eyes of the law. So if you’re pulled over, don’t try to figure out whether or not the officer has probable cause to legally search you. You always have the right to refuse searches.

Refusing a search request is not an admission of guilt and does not give the officer the legal right to search or detain you. In fact, most avoidable police searches don’t occur because police have probable cause. They occur because people get tricked or intimidated into consenting to search requests.

If police search your car and find illegal items despite your refusal, your lawyer can file a motion to suppress — or throw out — the evidence in court. If the judge agrees that the officer’s search violated the 4th Amendment’s probable cause requirements, she’ll grant the motion. Unless the prosecution has other evidence, your charges would be dismissed.
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