Alcorn, Sage, Schwartz &
Magrath LLP

Would you refuse to consent to a voluntary police search?

As Midwesterners, most of us are socialized to be both polite and accommodating – especially when interacting with authority figures. We understand that getting out of a traffic ticket or similar situation can sometimes be accomplished with a smile and an admission that we may have been driving faster than we thought.

But should we be so accommodating – especially in cases where the stakes are higher than a speeding ticket? And do we actually have the courage to say “no” when police ask to invade our privacy without a warrant? According to two researchers who have studied the subject of police compliance, most people have a much more difficult time refusing police requests than they predict they will.

In a recent York Times Article, two professors discussed the findings of their research on police “consent searches.” These occur when police don’t have a warrant, but ask questions like: “Do you mind if I take a look inside the trunk?” Because it was phrased as a request, these searches would be considered voluntary in most courts. As such, anything illegal discovered in the course of a search would be admissible evidence.

But consent is a tricky issue. The researchers found that simple, face-to-face requests are surprisingly hard for most people to refuse. They set up two experiments to test how we respond to requests – even invasive ones.

One group of participants was asked to imagine how people would respond if the study’s leaders made a rather intrusive request. It would sound like this: “Before we begin the study, can you please unlock your phone and hand it to me? I’ll just need to take your phone outside of the room for a moment to check for some things.” Only 28 percent of participants said that they would comply with such a request, and only 14 percent predicted that others would.

Another group of participants actually received the request rather than being asked to imagine it. Among that group, an astonishing 97 percent of people complied and agreed to hand over their phone. Most later reported feeling far more pressure to comply than the other group predicted people in such a situation would feel.

If you are ever approached by police officers and asked to consent to a search or asked to answer invasive questions, how you respond could be much more consequential than you think. Remember this: Refusing a search or refusing to answer questions does not imply guilt. Even if it does make officers suspicious, it at least does not give them evidence to use against you later.

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