CAn you limit the scope of a search?

One of the favorite tactics of patrol officers is to ask for consent to search your car after they make a traffic stop. They routinely ask for consent whenever they suspect someone might be hiding something, even if it's nothing more than a suspicion. Most people feel like they have to cooperate and help the police; many people also believe they will look guilty if they don't consent. It takes a pretty strong individual to say no.

Jimmy Cotton was one of those people who didn't give in - at least all the way. He was stopped for a traffic violation, although the real reason was that officers believed he was transporting drugs.The officers asked for consent to search the car, and Cotton told them they could search his luggage. The police then went on to search his luggage, but the entire car. Eventually the peeled back the driver's side door panel and found 380 grams of cocaine.

Cotton filed a motion to suppress in the District Court, which was denied. He appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the District Court, and held the officers improperly exceeded the scope of the consent they had been given.

You can learn a couple of things from this case. One is that if you want to limit what the police can search you need to be specific. There was a debate in this case over what Cotton meant. Fortunately they had the audio recording of the encounter.

The second thing you can learn is that if you do consent, they can search the entire car and even tear it up while doing so. It's not ununusual for them to remove panels, go into the trunks and uner the hood, and even dismantle other  parts of the car.

The best action to take is to simply say  no. Even if you have nothing to hide, you still may end up with damage to your car.

As with any case, hiring a good lawyer can mean the difference between winning and losing. The lawyer here recognized the problem and pursued it by filing a motion to suppress. Winning the motion means he won the case since the state is left without any evidence to use. You can't ask for a better result than that.

Walter Reaves
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Criminal Defense Attorney Walter Reaves has been practicing law for over 30 years.
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