Do you know what your rights are when a police officer asks to search you? If you’re like most people I’ve met in my eight years working to educate the public on this topic, then you probably don’t.
It’s a subject that a lot of people think they understand, but too often our perception of police power is distorted by fictional TV dramas, sensational media stories, silly urban myths, and the unfortunate fact that police themselves are legally allowed to lie to us.
It wouldn’t even be such a big deal, I suppose, if our laws all made sense and our public servants always treated us as citizens first and suspects second. But thanks to the War on Drugs, nothing is ever that easy. When something as stupid as stopping people from possessing marijuana came to be considered a critical law enforcement function, innocence ceased to protect people against police harassment. From the streets of the Bronx to the suburbs of the Nation’s Capital, you never have to look hard to find victims of the bias, incompetence, and corruption that the drug war delivers on a daily basis.
Whether or not you ever break the law, you should be prepared to protect yourself and your property just in case police become suspicious of you. Let’s take a look at one of the most commonly misunderstood legal situations a citizen can encounter: a police officer asking to search your belongings. Most people automatically give consent when police ask to perform a search. However, I recommend saying “no” to police searches, and here are some reasons why:
1. It’s your constitutional right.
The 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects us against unreasonable searches and seizures. Unless police have strong evidence ( probable cause) to believe you’re involved in criminal activity, they need your permission to perform a search of you or your property.
You have the right to refuse random police searches anywhere and anytime, so long as you aren’t crossing a border checkpoint or entering a secure facility like an airport. Don’t be shy about standing up for your own privacy rights, especially when police are looking for evidence that could put you behind bars.