Everyone has their favorite Constitutional Rights that they like. Some believe that the First Amendment, right to free speech, is the foundation of a free society. Others believe the Second Amendment, right to bear arms, is critical for the populace to be protected from the government. It amazes me that our forefathers could anticipate genetic splicing and the creation of men with giant grizzly arms all of the way back in the 1700s, but I digress.

For me, I have always felt that the Fourth Amendment, protection from unlawful search and seizure, was an incredible design against the overreaching of the government into the privacy of the people. In theory, it’s a simple concept. However, after over 200 years and 200 million lawyers, it is still a confusing and difficult concept that even the smartest people in the world still debate about how it is applied. Toss me into the mix and it’s even more messed up…

When can a police officer search my car?

It sure would be easy to just say, “When ever we want,” and be done with it, but that would be very wrong. Whether it’s a backpack or a car, we do not have the right to search anything we want whenever we want. I may know deep in my heart that you are illegally smuggling a dozen miniature giraffes in your trunk as part of some international giraffe smuggling ring, but unless I have reasonable suspicion to believe there is something illegal in your car, I cannot search it without your permission.

So if I ask to search your car and you tell me “no”, I cannot search it unless I establish some facts that would reasonably lead me to believe there is a crime or evidence of a crime in the car. For example, if you are stopped and I see an open container of alcohol on the seat, I can now search anywhere in the vehicle I might find additional alcohol, trunk included. At that point you can say you don’t want me to search, but I will still be able to and probably will.

Also, if you are arrested and the car is going to be towed, I am allowed to do an inventory search prior to the towing. This allows me to search the entire car, including locked containers to make sure someone can’t come back later and say there were a thousand dollars and a mini giraffe in a locked case that is now missing from the trunk.

What if I say I do not give permission for the police to search my car and they search it anyway?

Usually when I ask to search a vehicle, there is a reason I am asking. I don’t ask every car and, in fact, I probably ask on about average one percent of the cars I stop if I can search them. Sometimes it’s because I just “have a feeling” that something is not right and I am suspicious. In that case, if the driver says “no,” I have to stop. On the other hand, maybe as I walk past the back of your car, I hear tiny hooves pawing at the trunk lid and the whinnying sounds easily recognizable as that of thirsty illegally imported mini giraffes. At that point, my familiarity with the laws against giraffe smuggling combined with the sounds I hear coming from your trunk will allow me to search the car regardless of your objections.

If I do search your car against your objections, you have several options. 1) Run. Not my recommendation. Nothing says, “I’m guilty of something!” more than this option. 2) Scream and yell and argue with the cops. Feels good for the moment, but you run the risk of being detained and placed in the back of a police car, and the search will still happen. 3) Clarify that you object to the search of your car and if the officers continue, watch patiently until they are done. If you are arrested or charged with a crime, make sure your attorney knows you objected to the search, and let them argue the legality in court. A bad search will get evidence tossed out of court and it’s likely the charges will be dropped. If you are not charged with a crime and feel the search was wrong, ask to speak to the officer’s supervisor. If you are not satisfied with the answers you get, you can also call Associated Students Legal Resource Center, and they can go over the situation with you and provide you information on what your rights are.

I hope this is helpful, but unfortunately I am trying to give a quick answer to a question that numerous books and papers have been written on. I’ve been dealing with search and seizure laws for 20 years, and I still am learning about it. If I am going to be a good officer, I need to keep studying the laws that were made to protect the people as well as miniature giraffes everywhere. For now, take care and stay safe.

Got caught by a cop? Your party popped by the Po-Po? Ticked by a ticket? If you have questions, don’t let it eat away at you, Question Authority! E-mail me anytime at: QA@Police.ucsb.edu or call UCSB PD at (805) 893-3446