Consider the hypothetical situation where I am stopped by a patrol officer. After handing over the required documents (driver's license, vehicle registration, proof of insurance), he orders me to unlock the trunk. Clearly, this is for the purpose of conducting a search.

If I comply, I'm worried that the court will take this as consent to that search. If I do not comply, I'm worried that I might be prosecuted for disobeying an order.

So, may I refuse to comply with the order, or does the policeman making it an order render any subsequent search to be non-consensual?

(I welcome any generalization of this question and the principles involved.)


3 Answers 3


If you comply without protest, this will be taken as consent to a search, and make anything found admissible. One can verbally object. The ACLU suggests the form "I do not consent to searches" to any request to search your car, your house, your person or any other property of yours or under your control. There is no need to give any reason for your refusal.

However, one is required to follow any "lawful orders" given by police officer during a traffic or pedestrian stop.[1] Failure to follow lawful orders may well be a separate crime. Even if the lawfulness is suspect, it is usually better to comply and challenge the order later, in court.

One might make a second objection, such as "I don't see that you have probable cause for a search, and I do not give consent. Are you ordering me to permit a search?"

If the officer clearly orders you to open the trunk, one might place the keys in reach of the officer, while not opening the trunk oneself. That might help establish that there was no consent to the search, and require probable cause to be established before anything found could be used in a trial. One might also repeat, as the officer opens the trunk "I am not consenting to any search."

If it is possible for any person present to record video without obstructing the officer(s) that might hrlp to establish the absence of consent and other relevant facts, later. People in general have a right to make such recordings, but not to obstruct or interfere with police activity.

Duty to Obey

The Washington Post in an opinion article dated July 23, 2015 "Sandra Bland and the ‘lawful order’ problem" wrote:

The Bland video brings up an overlooked problem with the law of police-citizen encounters. The police can back up their orders with force because it’s often a crime to disobey a lawful order from a police officer. But from a citizen’s perspective, it’s often impossible to know what is a lawful order. As a result, it’s often impossible for citizens to know what they can and can’t do during a police encounter.

The first problem is knowing what counts as an “order.” If an officer approaches you and asks you to do something, that’s normally just a request and not an order. But if there’s a law on the books saying that you have to comply with the officer’s request, then the request is treated as an order. You can’t know what is an “order” unless you study the law first, which you’re unlikely to have done before the officer approached you.

In the case of Oregon v Rose Mary ILLIG-RENN, 42 P.3d 62 (2006) The Supreme Court of Oregon held that

ORS 162.247(1)(b), a statute that makes it a crime to "refuse[] to obey a lawful order by [a] peace officer."

is constructional against challenges under the Oregon and US Federal constitutions.



  • 12
    "is constructional against challenges under the Oregon and US Federal constitutions" - was that supposed to say "constitutional", or is "constructional" some legal term I haven't heard of? Sep 7, 2022 at 9:16
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    It seems to me to be a Catch-22, under my understanding of UK law - A policeman can "ask" you to open the boot of a car, or a pedestrian's bag, but has no right without "reasonable suspicion". However, refusing that request is clearly/frequently regarded as providing that suspicion...
    – MikeB
    Sep 7, 2022 at 9:50
  • 3
    @supercat I don't know of any case where a person handed such a card or printed msg to a cop. I doubt it would have any greater effect than a spoken refusal to consent, an most people do not encounter such a situation often enough to keep such a card at hand at all times. I don't see any advantage. But one could try it. Sep 7, 2022 at 15:02
  • 3
    @supercat Two problems with your idea. The first is that you might get yourself shot while reaching for your card. The media abounds with stories of the police shooting people who were reaching for things that turned out to be completely harmless. The second is that the cop has no duty to read or retain your card so is no better than spoken word. Sep 7, 2022 at 16:28
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    @DeanMacGregor: One would have the card in one's hand before the cop arrives at the car. A limitation of spoken utterances which does not apply to written material is that there is no way a person can testify with certainty as to what someone else would have heard them say. Disagreements over what was said do not imply that anyone was lying. By contrast, if someone says they handed the cop a card and told the cop to read it, and silent dashcam footage shows that the person exited the vehicle with a piece of paper in their hand and offered it to the cop, and the person testifies that...
    – supercat
    Sep 7, 2022 at 17:10

You do not explain why you believe that you were ordered to open the trunk. Wording like "I command you to open the trunk" is clearly an order; "I need you to open the trunk" is a statement of personal opinion. You can ask directly "Are you commanding me to open the trunk for a search?", and a "Yes" suggests that it is a command (the courts may say that it "clearly asserts" it). They can still search your trunk if they have probable cause that there is evidence of a crime (if they are wrong that there is probable cause, any evidence from the search will be inadmissible). Or, if you have been arrested, then a search is allowed; or, if they reasonably believe that a search is necessary for their safety. You don't have to be persuaded by their reasoning, you just need to know what they literally said – was it a command, or a suggestion? Many people have been convicted because they gave in to the power of suggestions.

In Washington state, to pick one example, there is no law that requires you to obey an order by a police officer. There are specific laws such as one obliging you to stop (driving) when signaled by a police officer, and to provide identification when told to. Similarly when they are directing traffic, you have to obey the directions. Resisting arrest is also illegal. The law that comes closest to a general requirement to obey police orders is "obstructing a law enforcement officer". This only applies to lawful use of official powers. You can insist on speaking to an attorney to determine whether you are legally obligated to "assist" the police – they can't arrest you for asking to talk to an attorney.

  • 1
    The question assumes that the officer made it an order. The specific phrasing is whatever constitutes an order.
    – EvilSnack
    Sep 8, 2022 at 3:29
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    Apparently, you have never watched youtube videos of actual police stops.
    – paulj
    Sep 8, 2022 at 18:16
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    @paulj That comment isn't helpful. What part of the answer are you disagreeing with? Sep 9, 2022 at 15:15

In the U.S. it will depend on the type of vehicle. Typically in the U.S. cops are not allowed to conduct searches of vehicles unless related to the initial crime for which they made the stop and plain view searches of the parts of the passenger cab immediately accessible to the vehicle occupants. Whether the trunk qualifies is entirely based on the car design. There are 2-3 internal compartments to a vehicle (engine compartment (hood/bonnet), passenger cab, and cargo compartment (trunk in North America, boot in Europe). If the cargo compartment is open to the passenger compartment (such as in station wagons and hatchbacks, SUVs, and vans known as a 2-box), than it is as fair game as the rest of the passenger cab. However, vehicles with separated cargo compartments (3-box, such as Sedans and trucks, both Box Trucks and Tractor Trailers) than opening the trunk is not allowed. (The idea being that the cop can't see inside and thus needs a warrant, where as the Passenger Compartment is accessible and the suspect can hide evidence. Pickup trucks are special in that the trunk space can be searched under Plainview doctrine unless the owner put some kind of covering over the bed to protect the interior contents from falling out... or from others for finding the contents that "fell off the back of the truck" literally or otherwise. Cab Over Beds or Bed covers will change the legality of the search. As a general rule, if the cop can't see it and you can't access it without leaving the car interior, than the cop will need probable cause for a warrant before searching the trunk.

Edit: A cop can search your vehicle in complete if they are impounding it or having it towed. This is known as an inventory search and is allowed because the purposes aren't for evidence gathering, but for liability. Not only do they catalog all items and their condition so that they know if damage was pre-existing or occurred while it was in their custody, but it also allows them to verify that the vehicle is safe to release into the custody of the tow truck operator so that they aren't at risk for harm, either legal or physical. If they find evidence of a crime during an inventory search, than they can use that evidence in court. However, they cannot impound your car or tow it without probable cause.

  • 2
    "Typically in the U.S. cops are not allowed to conduct searches of vehicles unless related to the initial crime for which they made the stop" I am fairly sure this is incorrect. Can you cite a reliable source for this, preferably an actual law, caselaw, or official policy? Sep 7, 2022 at 17:14
  • @DavidSiegel en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terry_stop#Traffic_stops Quoth: For practical purposes, a traffic stop is essentially the same as a Terry stop; for the duration of a stop, driver and passengers are "seized" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court has held that drivers and passengers may be ordered out of the vehicle without violating the Fourth Amendment's proscription of unreasonable searches and seizures. Drivers and passengers may be frisked for weapons upon reasonable suspicion they are armed and dangerous.
    – hszmv
    Sep 7, 2022 at 17:25
  • That is about searches withotu consent but also without a warrant, or probable cause. But the question asks about a case wher the officer in efect requests consent. Once consent is given the officer may search ny part of the vehicle. When a search is lawful, it is not limited to evidence connected with the initial reason for the stop. -1 Sep 7, 2022 at 17:33
  • But they don't need a warrant for a plain view/Terry frisk search, which extends to the passenger compartment in a vehicle stop. The trunk depends on it's accessibility from the passenger compartment and/or plain view.
    – hszmv
    Sep 7, 2022 at 18:04
  • but any part may be searched by consent, which is what this question is about. In any case "*not allowed to conduct searches of vehicles unless related to the initial crime for which they made the stop *" is just wrong. If there is a lawful basis for a search, whether plain view, probable cause, or consent, the search need not be related to the original reason for the stop st all. Sep 7, 2022 at 18:41

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