In the South, we are taught to be polite. “Yes, ma’am,” and “no, sir,” are drilled into us at a very early age. We are brought up to respect our elders and those in positions of authority. Southern etiquette also teaches us to make others feel at ease by avoiding confrontation at all costs. Practicing law in a Southern college town, we see a good many polite, well-mannered students from this traditional upbringing. Unfortunately, it is a fact of life that even good people from good families sometimes make poor choices that can lead to panic-inducing interactions with law enforcement officers.
Routinely, one of the officer’s requests is, “Do you mind if I search your vehicle?” Often the question is asked in such a way as to strongly imply that “no” is not an acceptable answer. Many people are unaware that giving your consent to a search gives up or “waives” most of your protection from unreasonable search and seizure that is guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court has even held that your consent to a search does not have to be verbal, but can be inferred by a person’s actions under the circumstances. That means that a polite deflected response or passive shrug of the shoulders in order to avoid confrontation could be all that is required to waive your Fourth Amendment rights.
While police officers are figures of authority, they are also professional evidence-gatherers. In any interaction with the police, one would be wise to assume that the officer is continually accumulating evidence to be used against him. Refusing to consent to a search may seem impolite or uncomfortably confrontational, but in many instances it is the correct decision. If the officer truly has a valid legal basis to search your vehicle, he will be able to conduct his search without your consent. Insisting on your rights and being polite are not mutually exclusive: when asked “may I search your vehicle,” know that it is ok to say, “no, thank you.”