The Legality of Police Searching “Stash Containers”
Very Important: The information provided below is only meant for the general information of the reader. It is no substitute for sound legal advice in the jurisdiction you happen to be in. Always follow the laws on the books to the letter and as they are commonly practiced by law enforcement, not merely as you personally interpret them. While federal law covers all in the United States, you are also subject to many state and other regional laws that may vary in unique and legally significant ways. It is your duty as a citizen and resident to make yourself familiar with all the laws that govern you.
People in America can expect to have their privacy rights respected by law enforcement under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. This amended the law so that people and property would not be “unreasonably” searched. What this all really means to those who use lock boxes or stash containers for the safe keeping of personal items and valuables is that there would have to be a strong reason before an officer is able to legally open such a container. All states must follow this, but there are differences in wording that can mean differences in application of the law depending on where you live.
As a general rule, officers will not be able to legally search a stash container or any other locked container unless:
- You give them permission
- There is probable cause
- They have a warrant
- They have reason to perform a “protective search”
If you are reading this, then you are probably not the type to give consent to a search. Even if you do, typically an officer will have to stop the search as soon as you revoke the consent, so long as they have not already found something that gives them probable cause.
Probable cause gives them the right to search people and items relevant to the thing that triggered the probable cause. What gives an officer probable cause can be a lot of things, including a police dog signaling that it smells illegal drugs. If something like that happens, they can do whatever is needed to force locked containers open. They can even take the car into their custody to have it thoroughly searched later. Typically, they will not impound the car if they are not also arresting the driver.
Protective searches are there for the officer’s safety. If they have good reason to fear for their safety, they can open locked boxes that may be large enough to hold a weapon. In one case that reached Indiana’s second highest appellate court, the court upheld a murder conviction on a man who had the murder weapon retrieved from his locked glove box in his car during a routine traffic stop. The officer was concerned because the man was a suspect in several murders and was alleged to have said he would kill the next cop that stopped him. They let him go but kept his gun which was later linked to a murder. He was sentenced to a total of 86 years in prison.
If your “stash box” is at home or is being carried by someone who is not a part of the alleged illegal activities, they are typically not a part of the probable cause and cannot be searched until they either get that person’s permission or a search warrant from a judge. Of course, for obvious reasons, taking the time to obtain search warrants on someone you are not arresting means the locked stash box in question has time to “disappear”.
So what can those interested in privacy rights and the security of lock boxes take away from this? If you are not behaving in any suspicious way, either in the past or during a stop, you can expect your stash box to remain un-searched. If you want to prevent searches from happening, do not allow officers to make you feel that you should consent to a search, and make sure your reputation and criminal record are clean enough to prevent probable cause and protective search from becoming a reason to subvert your right to privacy.