The sounds of police sirens just behind you while driving the streets of New York City can be a worrying experience. You wonder if the approaching police officer is here to question you, ticket you, or even arrest you. It is important to remain calm as the officer approaches. If you are asked to give the officer permission to search your vehicle, remember that – unless you are arrested in connection to the stop – you can refuse without legal repercussions. (If you can record the encounter do so, but that might cause more problems.) If the police testify that you gave consent and you didn’t, most judges are going to believe the cops.
The police may search your vehicle under a number of legal doctrines if they did not have to ask first. A police officer can search the property of an individual with a warrant. If the officer does not have a warrant, searches can be justified by probable cause – or even the evanescent doctrine known as “arguable probable cause.”
But if you were just speeding and the officer doesn’t tell you to step out from the car to perform a sobriety test – which you will fail in their eyes – you can refuse a search and should. Most officers are good people, except when it comes to telling on their officer siblings. Some bad ones need to make arrests and will plant evidence on you, so even if the partner of one of the bad apples is generally good, he or she will never snitch on a lying cop.
Beware. Treat the police like strangers on the street if you can. I have seen too much in twenty five years of practice to know what they can get away with.
However, if the police are asking for consent to search your vehicle, then a search is not justifiable unless you grant permission. Whether it is your automobile, your house or your phone, a police officer cannot search it unless you say so. Should the police go ahead and search your vehicle even though you have denied permission, any evidence they would uncover would be considered inadmissible in court because it was procured unlawfully.
Even if you have refused permission for a search, be careful that you do not say anything that the police would consider suspicious and create grounds to search your vehicle. If they ask for your name and identification, go ahead and show them your driver’s license and provide your name. However, if they start to question you, you may refuse to answer, and should the police arrest you, you may invoke your Miranda rights and not answer questions.
In your interactions with police, be polite and respectful, but know that you have rights that you should not surrender to law enforcement officials. Any unlawful search will imperil or even destroy a case that New York prosecution might bring against you. Because police encounters vary widely, do not take this article as legal advice. It is written to educate NYC residents on criminal defense issues relating to police searches.