"Why did I get searched?": A guide to how this happens.
Updated: Oct 12
"Well, I aint passed the bar but I know a little bit. Enough that you won't illegally search my shit." Ne'er a month goes by that someone doesn't quote Jay-Z to me when they find out I'm a criminal defense lawyer, or a lawyer, or a law student...
If the world took stock of 99 Problems, I'm positive there would be less 4th Amendment violations and people would stop wondering why they were searched. But for anyone pondering why they may have been subjected to a random search or K9 sniff, here's how it happens, and what you can do to avoid it happening to you.
1. You were dumb enough to consent.
"I aint stepping out for shit. All my papers are legit."
"Well do you mind if I look around the car a little bit?"
Yes. You do mind. Respectfully of course. There's a psychological reaction to a police uniform where we (the Royal we) always feel the need to please the badge. We've all probably done it at some point. So when someone is asked if they consent to a search, the answer will undoubtedly be "yes." Further, it's shocking how many consent to a search while forgetting about the meth they have stashed in their center console. If you only take away one thing form this article it is this: DO NOT CONSENT. You're not breaking the law if you say no. You're exercising your given 4th Amendment right.
2. You gave them reasonable suspicion.
"I heard, 'son, do you know why I'm stopping you for?'
Cause I'm young, I'm black, and my hat's real low."
Here's the deal. Often times, your traffic stop can provide police with something called "reasonable suspicion." It's a low standard. Police need to give some reason for a stop. You either give him reasonable suspicion that you violated motor vehicle code (when you rolled through that stop sign), or that you're engaged in some type of criminal activity (when you rolled through that stop sign).
You might be asking yourself, "does that allow them to search my car?" No. But you're now sitting pretty for a request for consent to search. And your answer will be..."No. Respectfully."
3. You gave them probable cause. Woops.
"Well, my glove compartment's locked, so is the trunk in the back and I know my rights, you gon' need a warrant for that."
If reasonable suspicion is first base, than probable cause is the home run the officer is swinging for. It's a higher degree of reasonableness that is necessary and allows the officer to search and possibly arrest you. Jay-Z was almost right. But they don't need a warrant to search your car, only probable cause. It's the linger of alcohol on your breath or the smell of that burning roach in your ash tray (do cars still have ash trays?). There's no getting around probable cause. That is to say, once it's established, take a deep breath and try to remember the number of your mother's lawyer. At this point, you should expect something to happen. But is it possible to never reach this stage? Well, if you're going for a leisurely ride and you've done nothing wrong, you're likely finding yourself on the tail end of a request to search. What do you say? "No. Respectfully."
4. Unleash the hounds.
"Well, we'll see how smart you are when the K-9 come!"
And another thing, if an officer threatens to get a warrant or a K-9, seize the moment by saying, "respectfully officer, you can get a warrant or a dog, but I DO NOT consent to a search of my vehicle." This exact scenario recently happened to a friend of mine. The outcome: an illegal search of the vehicle anyway despite her refusal to consent. When that happens, call your mom's lawyer, because you just got yourself a solid defense.