Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Shooting oneself in the foot

Over the weekend, my wife and I drove up to Huntsville State Park to do some hiking for our anniversary. Along the way we stopped in Willis so she could get her caffeine fix in at Starbucks. As we drove along the feeder to enter the Kroger parking lot off FM 1087 I couldn't help but notice a car parked on the shoulder with a state trooper sitting behind it. The people in the car were standing off to the side and the doors were open.

It was about 9:30 on a Sunday morning and someone had the police tearing through their car. Under no circumstances could that be considered a good way to start the day.

After I dropped my wife in front of the Kroger's, I circled back around to the feeder to see what was happening. The trunk lid was open and a trooper was putting the spare tire back in. It was only getting worse.

I drove back around and picked up my wife. Not being one to pass up a train wreck, I drove back around to the feeder. The doors of the car were still open. Two women were standing in the grass and a third was standing with her hands cuffed behind her back at the side of the police car.

Now I have no idea what was going on. I don't know who the people involved are. I don't know why the car was stopped. I have no idea what was found in the car or why (at least) one woman was under arrest.

I do know, however, that the driver, for some unknown reason, gave her consent to the trooper's request to search her car. My only question was Why?

Why would anyone allow the police to search their car without a warrant? Why would anyone with anything illegal in the car allow the police to search it?

I can guarantee you that the officer didn't have probable cause to search that car. And how do I know, you might ask. I know because he asked to search the car.

But wait, you say, if he arrested the driver he can search the passenger compartment since the inside of the car is considered within the reach of the driver. Maybe so, but everyone was standing outside the car when it was being tossed and no one was in handcuffs. No arrest, no search.

Besides, even if the officer could search the passenger compartment incident to an arrest (just try to find that phrase in the Fourth Amendment), he can't pop open the trunk absent a warrant or consent.

If the officer had probable cause to believe that something of an illegal nature was in the car, he would have arrested the driver (and passengers) and filled out a search warrant application and affidavit. He would have presented it to a judge and, once the judge signed it, searched the car.

Law books and computer data bases are full of cases in which illegal items were found as the result of a police officer's request to search a car. In the vast majority of those cases the officer was operating on a hunch. If the officer had probable cause to search the car, he damn sure had probable cause to arrest the driver or passengers. But in (too) many of those cases, the defendant sealed his fate by allowing the officer to search his car without a warrant.

There is nothing to be gained in allowing the police to search the car. There's no award for hanging yourself by letting the police find your stash of goodies in the trunk or under the hood. The prosecutor isn't going to dump the case just because someone let the cops toss their car.

Who cares if you piss off the officer? Call the officer's bluff and, as Nancy Reagan would advise, just say no.

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