FlexYourRights.org has an in depth description of Fourth Amendment rights regarding consent to search which states that most people don’t realize that police need probable cause to search your vehicle.
I think it is interesting how certain words and phrases are used to convey a message that they don’t really state. For instace, the phrase, “mind if I search your vehicle?”, while asking a question, actually has the connotation that there isn’t a choice in the matter. It’s like asking your buddy, “mind if I have a couple of these fries?” as you reach for them. Whether he minds or not, you are going to take them, and he knows this. Of course, he’s going to say “sure”. We are conditioned to think that we are obligated to say yes to any reasonable question that starts with, “do you mind if…”
I’ve actually been in this situation a couple of times. The funniest one occurred once coming home from my job washing dishes late at night. I was pulled over for driving 31 mph in a 35. I assume the officer thought I was using some type of substance I wasn’t supposed to be using since I was out late, had chest-length dreadlocks, and was driving below the speed limit. In actuality, my speedometer was spinning in a circle, and since I couldn’t tell how fast I was going, I always drove slowly just in case. I explained this to him and also noted that he’d been behind me for over two miles so I was being extra careful to drive below the speed limit.
After checking my license, the officer asked if I’d been drinking, to which I replied, “No sir. As you can see by my driver’s license, I’m not 21 yet…it’s illegal for me to drink.”
Admittedly, I probably didn’t go very far in getting him on my good side with that comment, but whatever. I’d been doing nothing wrong. Next came the inevitable, “mind if I search your car?”
He was pretty shocked when I informed him that yes, I did mind. He had no reason to think I was committing a crime. His next move, of course, was to threaten me with bringing out a dog in order to get probable cause. I told him to be my guest. I was finished working for the night and had nowhere to go and nothing to fear. He was obviously frustrated, but after a lecture about keeping my car in working order, he handed me my license and sent me on my way.
One thing I didn’t like about the tone of the article is that it sort of implies that police are somehow cheating the system by making you think you have to submit to a search. To me, it is the responsibility of the citizen to know their rights or to at least ask about them if they are not sure. The police do a tough and dangerous job, and I can’t really blame them for using people’s ignorance to help them perform their job more easily.