No Thanks, Officer

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Following a precedent established in Hawaii, the New Jersey Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that police may only ask for” consent” to search a car if they have “reasonable and articulable suspicion” of criminal activity. So-called “consent searches” have become a common police tactic, enabling them to rummage through automobiles to look for drugs, unregistered firearms, and other contraband.

When asking for “consent” to search a car, the police accurately recognize that most people who are confronted by a police officer do not know that they have the right to refuse consent to the search. The New Jersey court’s decision in State v. Carty recognized this fact.

The Court quoted with approval David A. Harris’s law review article 1/ Car Wars: The Fourth Amendment’s Death on the Highway” [66 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 556 (1998)] in which Harris decried “consent searches” predicated on mere traffic infractions: “Treating all citizens like criminals in order to catch the malefactors among us represents an unwise policy choice, an outlook favoring crime prevention over all of our other values.”

Unfortunately, most state courts have followed the federal rule created in Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218 (1973), by which a person can be deemed to “consent” to a search even if he did not understand that he had the right to refuse consent.

Remember, no matter where you are, if the police have probable cause or other legal justification to search you, they won’t ask permission. If a policeman asks you if he can search your car, you have every right to say no. You have no obligation to give a reason. Just say No.

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