Perhaps the largest category of exceptions to the warrant requirement is consent. If you voluntarily tell police officers that they can search you or your belongings, that is all the permission they need. They can search anything and everything if you allow them. On an intuitive level, there is nothing really wrong with this. If we tell someone they can search us, we cannot really complain about what they find. To the degree that the consent it truly voluntary, I agree with the consent exception. However, I am skeptical about how voluntary it is and am skeptical that people consent as often as police officers claim.
An officer is under no obligation to tell someone that they can say, “no” to a request to search. At the outset, this makes it questionable about whether a person has truly consented to be searched, and most police officers endeavor to make it sound as though they are just being polite when they ask for permission. Before officers ask for permission, they will frequently ask a somewhat incriminating question, such as, “you don’t have any weapons or drugs on you?” After the person denies possession, the officer will say, “so you won’t mind if I look around your car for a bit?” Most people would answer a bit differently if they knew what was really being said: “Before I can search you for illegal items, I need your permission so please give it to me.”
Suffice it to say, you do not want to give an officer permission to search you or your belongings. I don’t let strangers rifle through my belongings or search my pockets, no matter how well meaning they are. Neither should you. Politely tell the officer that you will not consent to a search and you would like to leave. The officer might not let you go, but it is important to make your lack of consent clear. You give yourself a chance to end the encounter sooner and the majority of officers feel constrained by your refusal. There are times that officers can think of other warrant exceptions, but by refusing consent, your lawyer can argue the legality of the exception. There are also times officers believe probable cause exists for a judge to issue a search warrant, but then you have a third party deciding the legality. There is not much left to argue once a citizen gives consent.
Unfortunately, some officer will ignore a person’s refusal entirely and plow ahead as though the person had given consent. Equally problematic, judges give officers the benefit of the doubt during a suppression hearing. When a police officer says that a person consented, judges tend to believe the officer, regardless of how illogical or implausible the story is. This is despite the burden of proof ostensibly residing on the government to show that there was consent for the warrantless search.
To some degree, smart phones are able to combat this problem. The ACLU chapters in some states offer apps that record police interactions. The app hides the record icon and makes it difficult to find the recorded file so an officer can’t just delete it. A user can send a copy of the file to the ACLU for backup. I hope that this app or a similar app will spread to Utah, and that the possibility of recording will deter officers from lying about consent.