Scott Greenfield points out that if the police ask to search your car and you consent, the courts have ruled that you are consenting to let the police take your car apart. Here’s the language he quotes from United States v. Garcia:
The search here was reasonable. When the officers requested permission to search the truck after asking Garcia whether he was carrying “anything illegal,” it was natural to conclude that they might look for hidden compartments or containers.
Yes, I know that if a cop asked me “You don’t mind if I look in your car, do you?” I would immediately assume he intended to take it apart. Wouldn’t you?
Garcia only involves disassembling a speaker compartment, but where exactly does the court draw the line? Scott explains:
The problem, of course, is that the scope of the consent is whatever the cops say it is, and is based on a parsing of the language that far exceeds anything a reasonable person understands it to be. When a cop asks a motorist if he can take a look in his car, does the motorist understand that to mean that he’s going to pull off the fenders in search of a secret compartment?
…Some cars, like the Nissan Maxima, were favorites, because they were fast and offered some great hiding places.
The solution became clear. Not only were cops targeting Maximas, but after obtaining consent, physically dismantling the cars by pulling off body parts on the side of the road. It was bad enough when they happened to stop a mule carrying drugs, but when they destroyed cars of innocent people in their search for the [hidden compartment], people were outraged. Unfortunately, there was little to be done to stop it. The courts ignored the issue of the search exceeding consent, the outrageous destruction of property in the never ending war on drugs.
Wouldn’t that suck? What do you do? Call a flatbed tow truck to pick up all the pieces and haul them to the dealer to be reassembled? Toss the parts in the back seat and drive to the body shop?
It was bad enough when they happened to stop a mule carrying drugs, but when they destroyed cars of innocent people in their search for the clavo, people were outraged. Unfortunately, there was little to be done to stop it. The courts ignored the issue of the search exceeding consent, the outrageous destruction of property in the never ending war on drugs.
Naturally, it’s the war on drugs. I’ve heard similar stories of customs agents cutting apart valuable import goods to make sure there aren’t drugs inside (except the customs agents don’t need your consent).
Personally, this ruling could come in handy. No police officer has ever asked to search my car, but if one ever does, I hang around enough crimlaw blogs to know that I should refuse the search on general principles. But I’m not very good at confrontations. I like to get along with people, and saying no to a cop would make me nervous. And you know his next question is going to be along the lines of “Why not? Have you got something to hide?”, which would really make me nervous.
Now, I’ve got an answer to “Why not?”: Because I just heard about a court case that says consenting to a search allows the cop to take my car apart, and I can’t afford the repair bill. It might work. Of course, if he manages to discover some probably cause, he’s going to tear my car apart for sure. So maybe that’s not a good idea.
Anyway, it seems to me that property damage during a search ought to be compensated, especially if nothing illegal is found. I’m sure the law-and-order types would argue that conducting searches of innocent people is an unavoidable cost of fighting crime. That’s probably true. But shouldn’t that cost be born by the public who benefit from all that crime fighting, and not the poor random folks whose property is damaged? Heck, since private property is being damaged for a public purpose, doesn’t this sound like a constitutional taking — requiring just compensation?
I know that sounds a bit crazy, but is it any crazier that the courts believing that people were actually consenting to have the police take their cars apart on the side of the road?