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Consent Searches: Scope

NCJ Number
FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin Volume: 73 Issue: 2 Dated: February 2004 Pages: 22-32
Jayme Walker Holcomb J.D.
Date Published
February 2004
11 pages
This article considers the scope and reasonableness of consent searches as established by the fourth amendment.
The fourth amendment provides for the security of the people in their persons, houses, paper, and effects against unlawful searches or seizures. This right afforded to all Americans limits the extent to which police may conduct searches of persons or their effects. However, police officers often obtain verbal consent to search a person or their effects. The United States Supreme Court has determined that there may be limits on the right to search even when consent is given by the suspect. The government has the burden of proving that any search conducted by police officers was within the scope of the consent given by the suspect. The U.S. Supreme Court has established a set of standards that courts use to determine the scope of consent searches; courts consider the officer’s and the suspect’s statements that resulted in consent to search, actions by both parties during the search, the manner in which the search was conducted, and the reasonableness of the search. Decisions of U.S. Supreme Court cases concerning the scope and reasonableness of the consent searches are offered to illustrate the main factors involved in consent searches. Cases involve issues about whether a consent to search a vehicle extends to consent to open and search closed containers found within the vehicle; whether officer and suspect comments before and during a search can limit the scope of the search; and whether giving consent to a personal search in a pubic place allows for an intrusive search of a suspect’s body. The latter case goes to the issue of the reasonableness of a search. The standard applied by the court is what a reasonable person would understand and consent to given the circumstances. In the case of the public and intrusive search, the Court ruled that a reasonable person would not assume that providing consent to a search in a public place would extend to such an intrusive search. Finally, the issue of officers damaging or destroying property during the course of a search is an unsettled issue by the courts, although generally destruction of property is considered to be exceeding the scope and reasonableness of a search. Endnotes