When a group of study participants was asked to guess how many motorists would comply with a police request to search their cars, they estimated 65% would agree. In reality, over 90% comply — even when they have something to hide.
The truth is, you have no obligation to consent to a police search of your car, your phone, your home or your belongings. The reason officers ask for consent is because, if you consent to a search, you can’t later argue that the evidence found was the result of an illegal search. That’s right: When the police ask for your permission, they’re pulling a legal maneuver on you.
They’re also relying on the power of social pressure. Logically, if there’s no obligation to consent to a search and you have something to lose by consenting, you shouldn’t consent. But people do it all the time.
Two professors recently performed a series of experiments to demonstrate that social pressure is a far more powerful force than many people realize. This is crucially important in criminal defense, where consent to searches is a big issue.
When courts consider the legality of a consent-based search, they look for any evidence of coercion, such as an officer brandishing a gun or making threats. Absent coercion, they ask themselves whether a reasonable person would have felt free to refuse the police’s request. But what if a reasonable person would almost never feel free to refuse because of the power of social pressure?
Study participants overestimate their willingness to refuse
The social pressure experiments were performed by Dr. Roseanna Sommers, a lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, and Dr. Vanessa K. Bohns, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
In one experiment, participants were asked, “Before we begin the study, can you please unlock your phone and hand it to me? I’ll just need to take your phone outside of the room for a moment to check for some things.”
In another experiment, the participants were told to merely imagine being asked for such a thing. Then, they were asked whether a reasonable person would comply with that request and also whether they thought people were likely to comply with the request.
Only 14% of the second group thought a reasonable person would turn over their unlocked phone in such a situation. That said, 28% guessed they would comply with the request anyway.
How many of the participants in the first group actually yielded their phones? It was 97%.
In other words, the participants who merely imagined the social pressure tended to sharply overestimate how willing they would be to actually say no. That was true even when the request was uncomfortable or burdensome and was made by a relative stranger.
Practice aloud: ‘I do not consent to any searches’
Refusing your consent for a search is perfectly legal and legitimate. It simply may take some practice. That way, when you’re on the side of the road feeling a great deal of pressure to consent, you will be able to remember what to say.
The police may search anyway. Don’t try to interfere, but tell your lawyer what happened. As long as you didn’t consent to the search, there’s a chance a court may rule it was unlawful. If that happens, any evidence found during the unlawful search would be inadmissible.
If you did consent to a search, don’t assume you have no options for your defense. Talk to an experienced criminal defense attorney right away.