Often I'll go for takeout and they'll hand me my food in an paper bag. There's nothing wrong with this, but I tend to feel suspicious walking down the street with this unmarked brown paper bag. If a police officer stopped me for whatever reason, I'd explain that it was just my lunch, and I'd be 100% okay with handing it over so they could have a look inside and see that, yes, it's just a burrito and some chips.

What I would NOT be okay with is that escalating into “you let me search one thing, so now you also have to let me search your backpack, phone…”. I mean, if they thought my phone was fishy, I'd probably let them have a look, but the most I'd be okay with is a cursory examination, while I'm standing there, with the thing locked; and I certainly wouldn't provide my pin/password/fingerprint/face/whatever could be used to unlock it. Whether I'd be okay with having my backpack searched varies.

Are there any issues with this? Can you selectively consent to searches this way, or do you have to politely decline any search at all to prevent things spiraling out of control?

1 Answer 1


The question that I think you asking is whether it is possible to give consent to a search in such a way that the scope of the search is limited (that is, any search of other stuff would be without consent and thus illegal, assuming consent is required). Let us say that you want to consent to a search of your brown paper bag, but nothing else. Then you say "You may search this brown paper bag, but you do not have permission to search anything else". If the officer tries to up the ante by saying "It would help if I could see your backpack", you simply reiterate your position – "You do not have permission to search my backpack". Or, if you're willing to allow a search of your cell phone, but only a "cursory" search, then you need to say explicitly what you are giving permission to. Don't be vague, because one man's cursory inspection is another man's cavity search.

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