You were walking down the street, and a police officer pulled up to you. You stopped, because you thought that they might need some assistance.
You were surprised when they said that you matched the description of a person who had just robbed a local store. You were supposedly wearing the same outfit and had similar features.
The officer asked you some questions, and you set down your bag. The next thing you knew, you were being placed in handcuffs, and the officer was rooting through your backpack. Is that legal?
You have Fourth Amendment rights
The Fourth Amendment protects you against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government if there is no warrant present. If a warrant is presented and the officer has probable cause, then they can legally go through your bag, home or anything that is named in the warrant.
Can the officer search your bag in your circumstances? That depends. There is one way to get around this constitutional right, which is that a police officer can carry out a search in cases when they believe that the person may pose a threat to themselves or others.
For example, if the officer stopped you for matching the alleged robber’s appearance and knew that they had a gun, they might be in the right when searching your bag. However, if you took this to court, then the officer would have to prove that there was probable cause to go through your belongings without a warrant. If you were already in handcuffs and weren’t resisting, a judge might not agree with the search.
The police can legally bluff and make it seem like the search is a demand, based on the case Schneckcloth v. Bustamonte, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have the right to tell them no. You can state that you don’t consent to a search. If you don’t, it may appear that you consented. Ask for a warrant from the officer if they ask to go through your bag. If the officer explains their reasoning and that they have probable cause, remember what they say for when you speak with your attorney.