As I review court affidavits, I often am surprised at how many drug charges stem from vehicle searches that the suspect allegedly consented to. Why would anyone consent to a search if they know they have contraband in the car?
Last week I spoke about this briefly with Margo Frasier, police monitor for the city of Austin, at the conference of the National Association of Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. Police in Austin now are required to get signed, written consent in order to search a car without probable cause, Frasier said. The consent form comes in multiple languages, and it includes a disclaimer that consent is not required when an officer asks to search a car. The forms were introduced in 2012.
A few other people at the conference were surprised to hear about these forms, although they aren't unheard of. From the law enforcement side, the forms provide proof in case the defendant later claims that he or she did not actually consent to the search. But in practice, Frasier said, fewer people consent to searches when they have to sign a form that tells them consent is voluntary. It turns out that, before the forms, lots of people didn't realize they could tell the officers "no." Here in Utah, I have spoken with a few defendants who said they consented to vehicle searches because they didn't realize they could refuse.