Written by attorney Vincent Patrick Wyatt

Do I have to consent to Police searching my car if I am pulled over in Tennessee?

One any given day in Tennessee you could find yourself pulled over for anything from the most minor of traffic violations. Upon the stop of your vehicle, you could be asked by the police officer for consent to search your vehicle. You do not have to consent to such a search. If you do not consent to a search, in most cases the officer will simply have to accept your refusal and let you go on your way as Police officers are not allowed to search a car simply because they have you pulled over for a legitimate reason. In order to search your vehicle, they must have probable cause that they will find contraband or proof of illegal activity.

If a person does give consent to search then an officer's search can still be challenged if the search exceeded the scope of the consent.

The standard for measuring the scope of consent is " 'that of "objective" reasonableness-what would the typical reasonable person have understood by the exchange between the officer and the suspect.' " State v. Brown 294 Sw3d 553 (Tenn. 2009).

In State v. Troxell, 78 S.W.3d 872. the officer asked the defendant during a traffic stop for speeding if he had "any weapons in the vehicle." When the officer asked if he could "take a look," the defendant answered, "Yeah, go ahead." After an extensive, nearly twenty-minute search of the interior of the vehicle and its contents, the officer examined the undercarriage and gas tank. After having the gas tank removed, the officer found cocaine in it. The Tennesseee Supreme Court held that the search exceeded the scope of consent because "it was objectively reasonable to conclude that the consent to search included only the interior of the vehicle and any containers that may have contained weapons," not the undercarriage and gas tank of the vehicle.

However in State v. Brown, the Trooper specifically mentioned "drugs" when he asked Mr. Brown to confirm that there was "[n]othing illegal at all in that vehicle." Trooper Hoppe then requested permission to take a "quick look." Before beginning the search, Trooper Hoppe again asked for confirmation that there was "nothing in there." Finally, Trooper Hoppe stated that he was looking for "large amounts of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines and heroin" and asked Mr. Brown to confirm that there was "nothing like that in the vehicle."

The Supreme Court found in Brown, as in Troxell, that a reasonable person would have understood the request to "look" as seeking permission to conduct a search. The expressed area of the search was "in the vehicle." The expressed object of the search was illegal drugs. "A reasonable person may be expected to know that [illegal drugs] are generally carried in some form of a container" and rarely strewn across the floor of a vehicle. Jimeno, 500 U.S. at 251, 111 S.Ct. 1801. The Court found that the Trooper expressly limited the duration of the search by asking if he could take a "quick" look. Applying a common-sense interpretation to the entire verbal exchange the Tennessee Supreme Court found that a reasonable person would have understood that the consent to search included consent to conduct a quick search of the interior of the vehicle and to handle any containers that might hold illegal drugs. The Court noted that the record showed that the Trooper promptly conducted the search and almost immediately found the package on the floorboard of the vehicle.The Court therefore found that the search was well within the scope of consent.

The United States Supreme Court has held that it is unreasonable to think that a suspect, by consenting to the search of his trunk, has agreed to the breaking open of a locked briefcase within the trunk, but okay with respect to a closed paper bag. Jimeno, 500 U.S. at 251-52, 111 S.Ct. 1801.

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