When are police legally allowed to search me?

Police officers are legally allowed to search your home or your property if they obtain a search warrant. To obtain a warrant, police officers must write out an affidavit — a written statement under oath — to convince a judge that they have probable cause to believe that criminal activity is occurring at the place to be searched or that evidence of a crime may be found there.

As a general rule, searches conducted without a warrant are automatically unreasonable and hence violate the Fourth Amendment. But in fact most searches occur without warrants because police take advantage of these many legal exceptions to the Fourth Amendment:

Consent Searches If the police ask your permission to search your home, purse, briefcase or other property, and you freely consent, their warrantless search automatically becomes reasonable and therefore legal. Consequently, whatever an officer finds during a consent search can be used to convict the person.
Plain View Rule This is common sense: Always keep any private items that you don’t want others to see out of sight. Legally speaking, police do not need a search warrant in order to confiscate any illegal items that are in plain view.

Searches Made in Connection with a Legal Arrest Police do not need a warrant to make a search “incident to an arrest.” After a legal arrest, police can legally protect themselves by searching the person and the immediate surroundings for weapons that might be used to harm the officer. Consequently, whatever an officer finds during such a search can be used to convict the person.

Exigent Circumstances A judge may uphold an officer’s warrantless search or seizure if “exigent circumstances” exist. Exigent circumstances were described by one court as “an emergency situation requiring swift action to prevent imminent danger to life or serious damage to property, or to forestall the imminent escape of a suspect or destruction of evidence.”

If you ever face a real-life police encounter where the officer is urging you to consent to a search, do not try to figure out whether or not the search is legally permissible. You must assume that the search is not legally permissible and that the search will only be legal if you consent. If an officer is in fact legally allowed to search you, you have nothing to lose by refusing to consent.

Why do police want to search me?

Simply put, the number of arrests an officer makes is a major factor used to determine his job performance. And police officers know that the easiest way to make arrests is to find people in possession of illegal drugs. To make one drug arrest, an officer generally has to search ten people. This means that nine innocent people will likely endure the inconvenience and humiliation of a police search so that one law-breaker can be arrested. In some officers’ minds, the nine searches that turned up nothing are easily justified—especially if those people willingly consented to his warrantless search requests.

Isn’t refusing to let the police search me an admission of guilt?

No. If a police officer asks your permission to search, you are under no obligation to consent. The main reason why officers ask is because they don’t have enough evidence to search without your consent. If you consent to a search request you give up one of the most important constitutional rights you have — your Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. As a general rule, if a person consents to a warrantless search, the search automatically becomes legal. Consequently, whatever an officer finds during such a search can be used to convict the person.

If I’m not doing anything illegal, why shouldn’t I let the police search me?

Don’t expect a police officer to tell you about your right not to consent. Police officers are not required by law to inform you of your rights before asking you to consent to a search. In addition, police are prepared to use their authority to get people to consent to searches, and most people are predisposed to comply with any request an officer makes. For example, the average motorist stopped by an officer who asks them, “Would you mind if I search your vehicle, please?” will probably consent to the officer’s search without realizing that they have every right to deny the officer’s request.

Police officers are often pretty tricky about trying to get someone’s consent to a search. They know that most people feel intimidated by police officers and are predisposed to comply with any request by a police officer. For example, the average motorist stopped by a police officer who asks them, “Would you mind opening the trunk, please?” will probably consent to the officer’s search without realizing that they have every right to deny the officer’s request.

If for any reason you don’t want the officer digging through your belongings, you should refuse to consent by saying something like, “Yes, I do mind. I have private, personal items in my [car, backpack, etc.] and do not want you looking through them.”

What if the police call in drug-sniffing dogs?

Your rights do not disappear if the officer threatens to call in the dogs, so don’t let this all-too-common tactic intimidate you into consenting to a search.
Before the dogs arrive, you have the right to dismiss yourself by asking if you are free to go. But if the officer detains you until the dogs come, remain silent and refuse to consent to any searches.

If a K-9 unit arrives, you should never consent to a dog sniff even if the officer claims you have to (which would be a lie). Remember: Unlocking your car at the officer’s request or handing the officer your keys is the same as consenting to a search. Also, despite the widespread myth to the contrary, an officer does not need to get your consent in writing. Oral consent is completely valid.

What if the officer says he’ll go easy on me if I cooperate?

Unfortunately, many people get fooled by some version of this commonly used police officer’s line: Everything will be easier if you cooperate. That might be true sometimes, but when it comes to consenting to searches and answering incriminating questions, it couldn’t be further from the truth.

Aren’t police required to read me my rights?

Despite the myth that police officers should read ones Miranda rights during arrest, the truth is that the only time an officer must read a person his or her Miranda rights is when: (1) the person has been taken into custody, and (2) the officer is about to question the person about a crime.

How do my rights apply during non-law enforcement officials such as security guards?

At the present time the Fourth Amendment does not apply to searches carried out by non-governmental employees like private security guards.

When can police order me out of the car?

During a legitimate traffic stop, police may order the driver and any passengers out of the vehicle. This rule is intended to protect officers’ safety, but it’s often used for investigatory purposes. Police who order you out of the vehicle probably suspect you of criminal activity, so be prepared for a pat-down and maybe a search request.

What are the rights of passengers during traffic stops?

Traffic stops typically occur as a result of suspected moving violations committed by the driver of the vehicle. Passengers cannot be held responsible for the driver’s conduct, and are generally free to leave, unless police become suspicious of them during the course of the stop.

Unfortunately, this happens frequently and the amount of evidence required to detain passengers is minimal. For this reason, passengers must remember to refuse search requests and refrain from answering questions without an attorney present. Police who suspect criminal activity will often separate the occupants of an automobile and question them separately. If their stories differ, this could lead officers to claim that they have probable cause to prolong the detention or conduct a search.
As with any other brief detention, the best way to handle this situation is to ask if you’re free to go.

Are police allowed to lie?

Yes. Police are generally permitted to lie if it helps them make arrests. The best example of this is when undercover officers claim not to be police. So police won’t hesitate to trick you into incriminating yourself or others. This is particularly common during interrogations in which officers might tell you that “your friend already gave you up, so you might as well come clean.”

The best defense against these manipulative tactics is to avoid saying anything to police without first speaking with an attorney.

I refused a search, but the officer searched me anyway. Was it an illegal search? What should I do?

Unfortunately police sometimes search you even if you refuse consent. If they find anything illegal, you’ll have to get a lawyer and fight it out in court. If you’re searched illegally and nothing is found, you should still consider taking legal action or at least filing a complaint.