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"Is It Okay to Search Your Car?"

criminal law know your rights legal education Jun 04, 2018

On Saturday, I was visiting a public county park on a lake. I was driving our Honda Odyssey minivan with my wife and four of my five kids. The Sheriff's office was there conducting a "random alcohol check." 

"Hi," said the friendly police officer outside the park entrance as we were waiting in line to pay the $7 parking fee. "We're just conducting a random alcohol check today. Do you have any alcohol with you?" 

I know my rights, so I know that I don't have to answer that question, but I figure it doesn't matter, and there's no reason to cause a stir unnecessarily, so I respond with a smile: "We don't even drink," and my kids add loudly from the back seat, "We're Mormons!" I figured that would be the end of it. It wasn't.

"I'd just like to go ahead and check your car, then. Is that okay?" he asked. It was so subtle. It was so unassuming. My wife said, "sure" at the same time that I said, "no," with a furrow in my brow. The inconsistency was not lost on the police officer, so he followed up. "So is it all right if I just take a quick look in your car to make sure you don't have any alcohol?"

"No, it's not." I said. It never is. I will never give consent to law enforcement to search my vehicle or my house or my person or anything else. Ever. Police can't stop me without "reasonable suspicion" that I've done something illegal. And they can't search me or my place or my stuff or my car without "probable cause," an even higher standard. This nice policeman had no suspicion and not a shred of probable cause for anything. So why would I let him search my vehicle?

I know there is no alcohol in my car. But that's not the point. I've seen too many cases where an officer is looking for one thing and finds another. The point of a "random" checkpoint is to find something wrong. Given the open access that comes with consent, who knows what the officer will find? Maybe my kids don't have their seatbelts buckled. Or maybe the powder from that donut last night makes the officer think we're having family cocaine outings in the van. (Yes, that's a real case!) I'm a lawyer, and even I can't keep up with all the crazy things that are illegal. I'm sure I break the law all the time. All of us do.

Here's the rub. If I give consent, and the nice policeman finds something wrong, there's nothing I can do. Game over. I lose.

But if I say no, then the officer cannot find anything. If he forces the issue and searches anyway, anything that is found will be thrown out. Every time. And then I win.

"If you don't let me look, we can't let you visit the park," said the officer. I don't think so, I think to myself. It doesn't work that way. You can't keep me out of a public park because I exercise my constitutional rights. But it's not worth the battle. "That's fine," I say. "Can you tell me if there is a park on this lake with a playground? That's what we're looking for anyway." He gave us directions, and we went two miles down the road, our constitutional rights intact.

We talked about the experience as a family as we drove off. "I can't believe I just said 'yes,'" my wife confided. She knows better. It was just so smooth, and so "harmless," that it didn't even occur to her what she was doing. And my kids saw firsthand how easy it is to just throw away the rights that many have died trying to protect.

I've taught my kids for YEARS never to make statements and never to give consent. Now they've seen how that works firsthand. Best education they could have received at a public park on a Saturday.


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