What are the real limits of police powers?

Not looking for a GD, just some concrete and accurate information and/or references as to what the real limits of police restraint, investigatory and interrogation powers are. Are there any general guidelines or does it vary widely from state to state?
I’m in Maryland.

There is so much stuff on TV about police getting in suspect’s faces and roughing them up or physically threatening them (ie NYPD Blue etc) to elicit a confession. There are also a lot of simple minded/naive drug users and prostitute’s Johns who believe (incorrectly) that the police will have to fess up if asked “Are you the police?”.

Is there someplace or some reference that spells out in basic terms what the real limits of police power are on the street (other than the Constitution).

Maybe you could narrow this down a bit. First of all, the real limits are not necessarily the legal limits. The real limits boil down to what is acceptable to the police hierarchy. There are certain police forces that have been notable for their tolerance of the use of force, including deadly force. LA and Philadelphia come to mind. In talking about “real” limits you’re talking more about a work ethic rather than legislation.

I see your point.

Case 1: Let’s say I’m in my car in Maryland. A policeman stops me because I have burned out tail light (or whatever) and sees a bag on the back seat while I get my license and registration out. He asks what’s in the bag and to see the bag and to search the car. Can I refuse to let him see it or have it? What are my privacy (or related) rights at this point?
Case 2: A policeman knocks at my door because someone has complained about or otherwise informed him I have goat porn on my PC, pot plants in the basement and machine guns in my den. He asks to come in. There is nothing he can see from the doorway that is incriminating. What are my rights at this point to refuse entry if he does not have a search warrant?

I should point out I am neither a cop nor a lawyer. Nor am I a reputable cite.

Probable Cause in #2. Somebody calls the cops and says they hear you beating your girlfriend and she sounds bad off, they can come in without permission. If they see the machineguns in the den, I’m fairly sure you are going downtown. They had a reasonable reason to enter the den, and found something. If they enter in suspicion you are beating someone, they do not have the right to search your bedroom drawers, the girlfriend is not hiding in there. If the complaint were loud music, for instance, there is no reason to enter.

#1, unless he claims to small pot or something (try to defend THAT one), he has no reasonable reason to search your car. If you refuse, he COULD always sniff the air and think he smells something, if his gut instinct says something is up.

But get that tail light fixed anyway, m’kay?

IANA lawyer, but Case 2 seems pretty clear cut. You can keep out the cop if there is no warrant, and there is no apparent danger or safety issue that would demand immediate action by the cop. In the OJ case, the cops did a search based on a blood trail into the home that indicated (or so they claimed) someone in the home might be injured and in need of medical attention.

Case 1 is a little hazier. Conceivably if the bag was close enough for you to reach and they felt that there might be a weapon concealed, they might get insistent. However, you can ALWAYS refuse permission. If they search anyway, and find something incriminating, it’s possible the evidence will be thrown out later. If you give permission and they find something, you are screwed.

I had something similar to case one. I was sitting in an idling car waiting to pick up a friend from work. A cop came along and asked my for ID, which I provided. He asked me what I was doing there, and I answered. He asked permission to search my car. I asked him to turn out his pockets so I could be sure he had nothing to plant in my car. He refused. Then he got pretty verbally abusive, and tried to intimidate me into giving permission. But I refused, and insisted that he call in his supervisor. A sargeant drove up a few minutes later, they discussed things, and left without searching.

There was a couple nearby on their front porch that heard and saw the entire episode. I don’t know what might have happened had there been no witnesses.

BTW, I didn’t have anything illegal to hide. I just felt that there was no good reason they came up with for me to allow it.

As a matter of general discussion, the police officer in #1 would need your consent, or probable cause to believe a crime had been committed. The mere presence of a bag does not create probable cause.

The cop may be able to search your person and the bag, however, if he can point to specific, articulable facts that lead him to his safety is in danger. This is a standard called reasonable suspicion. A search made under these circumstances must be brief and non-intrusive – patting down the outside of your clothes, for instance, instead of going in your pockets.

In #2, you have every right to refuse entry. But since the remedy for an illegal search is suppression of the evidence, you may not have a right to forcibly resist. In general, to search a home, the police must have a warrant, consent, or exigent circumstances - an emergency of some kind that would make the warrant requirement impossible. In the case of goat porn, pot plants, and machien guns, with no showing that the use of the guns was imminent or that the destruction of evidence was imminent, the police would generally be required to obtain a warrant.

This is, of course, not intended as legal advice. For legal advice, contact a practicing attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

  • Rick

In real time, which implies the absence of any judicial relief, the gun on the cop’s hip is the state’s final arbiter. Said cop’s disposition, and yours as well, may come in to play.

I know for certain that cops can chase a suspect into an apartment building, break down the wrong door and legally shoot and kill the unarmed, underwear clad, just-woke-up occupant.

seems like there are few limits when you get right down to it.

Of course, this discussion is all pre-Patriot Act opinions.

Such as:

Source: http://www.aclu.org/Files/getFile.cfm?id=11780

In essence, if the police just think you are involved in “terrorist” activities, they have carte blanche do to what they like.

No, this is not in the former Soviet Union. It is in the USA, now.


and used in conjunction with the RICO Act which allows law enforcement to freeze your assets you are left without the financial wherwithal to defend yourself (assuming of course you had it in the first place-johnny cochran dont come cheap).

the RICO Act was originally intended to be used against organized crime-preventing ill-gotten gains from being used for defense, but has since been applied in everything from insider trading cases to street level drug dealers to cases of simple burglary, and there is no reason to trust law enforcement not mis-apply it in the future in conjunction with the Patriot Act.

This is at best rather deceptive.

By the same token, you can legally shoot and kill an unarmed, underwear-clad, sleeping neighbor, if you were shooting to defend yourself from deadly attack by another and inadvertantly, but not negligently, winged your neighbor.

So I guess we should do something about the unfettered menace that is YOU, eh, Sigene? What do you suggest? Confinement at hard labor? Or what?

  • Rick

There are lots of laws that are supossed to govern this, but it is always going to come down to the cops word against yours. If he really wants to search your car or house, all he really has to do is say that he:

  1. Smells pot
  2. Thinks you are acting “suspiciously”

So while there are laws in place to protect you it really does not apply to the cops. If they want to search you they can and will regardless of how the law is written.

Is there any reason to consent to a search? It seems like if you say no, the officer can either continue under probable cause, which is debateable in court, or not search. Both of which are better actions than consenting.

That’s not true, and I have to say that it’s rather irritating to read such confidently-posted incorrect information in a forum of a board dedicating to providing the correct answers. It’s also irritating to realize that I posted the correct information above, and you have chosen to ignore it.

If a cop decided to search your house without a warrant, and, in court, testified that he did so because he thought you were acting suspiciously, any evidence found during the search would be suppressed. Even if he testified he smelled pot, he would likely have to obtain a warrant.

It’s true that your car is a different story than your house for Fourth Amendment purposes, and it’s likely that a search of the car predicated on “I smell pot” would be sustained.

It’s NOT true that a search of your car would be sustained if the sum total of the cop’s testimony is that you were “acting suspiciously.” Acting suspiciously is not a crime. To sustain a full search, the cop must have probable cause to believe a crime has been committed.

But there’s even more to the story than that. If the cop searches your car on the basis of the lie, “I smelled pot,” and then ultimately FINDS pot, you’re simply out of luck.

However, if the cop claimed he smelled pot, and then a search revealed some other contraband, which the state then sought to admit as evidence against you, a good defense attorney might explore just how often this “pot-smelling” cop had been wrong about the presence of marijuana, and it’s certainly possible that this could lead to suppression of the evidence, if the cop had a track record of lying about smelling pot and being wrong.

To sum up: your post, above, is a lie. Given the implicit ire you seem to feel at the cop’s lies, it’s rather ironic that you, yourself, would choose to lie, eh?

  • Rick

I don’t know a single criminal defense attorney that would advise anyone to consent to a search under normal side-of-the-road conditions.

“But I’m innocent,” I hear you cry, “so they won’t find anything!” True. So why should you let them search?

In the vast majority of cases, if you truly have nothing, the search is not a problem. But there’s always the chance that your kid gave his friends a ride home from school last week, and one of them dropped a little baggie by accident. Or the mechanic that had your car in the shop on Tuesday has been unsuccessfully struggling to control his meth habit, and left something behind by accident.

If you no you have nothing to find, then you know there’s no problem if the cops don’t look, right?

Unfortunately, most people that DO have something to hide seem to feel that either (A) “If I say that they can search, I’ll seem like I have nothing to hide, and they won’t bother searching,” (B) “If I say they CAN’T search, I’ll look guilty, and then they’ll search anyway,” or © “It’s so well hidden that they won’t find it.”

Cops are trained to exploit A and B. “You don’t have anything in there I should know about, do you?”

“No, officer.”

“Great, then you won’t mind if I take a look?”

It is, in my opinion, a very coercive position to be in, especially if you don’t know your rights.

But you can absolutely refuse, and not sound like a complete dirtbag: “I’m sorry, officer - I always like to cooperate with the police, but my privacy is very important to me, so I’m afraid I am not going to give you my consent to search.”

Repeat, pleasantly, as often as they ask.

  • Rick

Well I guess I don’t understand why what I wrote was deceptive. I know the the town where it happened and every year the parents give a scholarship in memory of their son.

I don’t think your “by the same token” example is valid since I’m not a cop…the question was what are the limits cops have. The point I make is that they can kill inocent people legally. I can’t, you can’t.

Overall, I think I’m confused by your comment. I wouldn’t mind an explanation to make things a little clearer.

The point is that yes, you the civilian can too. There are circumstances in which you might kill an innocent person and not be legally liable for a criminal conviction.

Oh, I guess I didn’t realize that I too could shoot and kill someone who obviously was unarmed, but who I mistakenly thought was a threat.

I just assumed that if a citizen mistakenly kills someone who is unarmed they would be brought up on murder or manslaughter charges…I don’t think I’ve heard of any situation to the contrary.

This $25 book may help. Found it by doing a Google search for “police powers handbook “your rights”.” There were a thousand other hits. You may find it or similar books at your library or you may find the same information on a web page. Check the date of any information source as police powers change over time.

Be mindful of the human factor of the police, from good to bad. Also that rights sometimes need defending.

Some very basic information on police encounters for anyone who wants it can be found in the handy “Bustcard” put out by the ACLU.