Why You Shouldn’t Agree to Warrantless Searches
When a police officer pulls us over on the road, or knocks on the door of our home, it’s natural to feel anxious even when we’ve done nothing wrong. We’re conditioned to comply with whatever the officer asks for — to be polite and cooperative even if the officer wants to search our cars, our homes, or our bodies. After all, the officer is the one with the power, and if we say “no” we might look suspicious even if we’re innocent of any crime.
However, many people may be unaware that the officer doesn’t actually have all of the power in an interaction. As citizens, we have constitutional rights that we are allowed to exercise — even if that means saying “no” when police want to search our property or our bodies without a search warrant.
The Fourth Amendment protects American citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. In general, that means that police officers need a warrant to conduct a search, and a warrant has to be based on probable cause, or in other words sufficient information to believe a crime has been committed or that the property being searched is connected to a crime.
Oftentimes police will ask for your consent to search you, your car, or your home. If you give consent, that means the officer doesn’t have to go to a judge and doesn’t have to show probable cause to get a search warrant. Your consent makes the officer’s job a lot easier. However, there’s nothing that says you have to give your consent to a warrantless search. If the officer does get a warrant, that’s a court order and there may be consequences for refusal, but when there’s no warrant you have every right to say “no” to a search.
Saying “no” to a warrantless search may protect your property, which could feasibly be damaged in a search, but also protects your privacy. Saying “no” also may give you some leverage in court if there is anything at all in your car or home, or on your person, that might incriminate you.
Let’s say that a friend rode in your car and had a baggie of marijuana in his pocket that you knew nothing about. If that baggie fell out of your friend’s pocket, or traces of marijuana were left behind, you could end up charged with possession if police find that in a search. A lot of cases like that depend on being able to keep evidence out of court, but it’s tougher for your lawyer to do that when you consented to a search and didn’t make police go through the process of getting a warrant.
However, if you refuse the search and police must go to a judge for a warrant, that gives you time to contact an attorney and make sure your rights are protected through the investigation.
One caveat to add — In Pennsylvania, the state Supreme Court ruled in Commonwealth v. Gary, No. 26 EAP 2012 (April 29, 2014), that police officers may proceed with a search of your vehicle without a warrant if they have reasonable probable cause, and your refusal of a search is not enough by itself to give them probable cause for a warrantless search. If a police officer claims probable cause exists to search your car, that’s still something your lawyer can challenge in court, whereas if you consent then there’s not much to fight.
If you’ve been charged with a crime, the experienced Pittsburgh criminal defense lawyers at Worgul, Sarna & Ness, Criminal Defense Attorneys, LLC can help. Call us today at (412) 281-2146 for a free consultation to discuss your options.