It is rarely, if ever, in your best interest to allow a search of your vehicle by consent. However, we realize that this is a stressful situation and you may consent for many reasons: fear of the consequences of refusal or belief that the officers cannot possibly find anything illegal in your vehicle, for instance. So, if you willingly give consent for an officer to search your vehicle in Tennessee, and you are subsequently faced with criminal charges as a result of that search, are you simply out of options? Tennessee case law tells us “not necessarily.” If a person does give consent to search, an officer’s search can still be challenged if the search exceeded the scope of the consent.

Tennessee case law holds that the standard for measuring the scope of consent is that of “objective” reasonableness. In other words, what would the typical reasonable person have understood by the exchange between the officer and the suspect? Obviously this is a very fact-driven analysis depending on what was actually said by both you and the officer. Let’s look at a Tennessee case to see how this plays out.

In State v. Troxell, the defendant was pulled over for speeding. The officer asked if the defendant “had any weapons in the vehicle” and if he could “take a look.” The defendant responded, “Yeah, go ahead.” The officer proceeded to conduct a twenty minute search of the interior and exterior of the vehicle, going so far as to inspect the undercarriage and remove the gas tank. (After removing the gas tank, the officer found cocaine stored in it.) Because of the dialogue of the parties before the search, the Tennessee Supreme Court held that the search exceeded the scope of consent because “it was objectively reasonable to conclude that the consent to search included only the interior of the vehicle and any containers that may have contained weapons,” not the undercarriage and gas tank of the vehicle. Look back at the officer’s words. He asked if there were “weapons” and if they were “in the vehicle.” Therefore, when the defendant gave consent, he was consenting to a search for weapons or any containers that may hold a weapon inside of the vehicle.

In short, even if you have given consent for your vehicle to be searched in Tennessee and subsequently charged with a criminal offense, the dialogue between you and the officer before the consent was given must be examined to see if the search was objectively reasonable. What, exactly, did you agree to? Consenting to a search of your vehicle does not automatically give law enforcement the right to search everywhere for every possible bit of evidence that could be held against you, as we saw in Troxell above. Thus, even if you consented, it may still be possible to hold the search illegal and unconstitutional. Since this is such a specific, fact-driven situation, you should consult with a criminal defense attorney who is experienced in Fourth Amendment restrictions against unreasonable search and seizure. McFarland Law Office, located in Clarksville, Montgomery County, will discuss with you the particular nature of your consent and whether the subsequent actions of the officer exceeded that consent. Consultations are always free and we can be reached at (931) 919-4376.

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