Civil Rights

The sanctity of your beach cooler

When the Framers of the Constitution drafted the Fourth Amendment, they foresaw police would want to look into your beach cooler during Labor Day weekend to ruin your fun in the sun.

No, they didn’t.

But the amendment’s text is instructive as to what the Framers did want to protect from government intrusion: persons, houses, papers, effects. In the law of searches and seizures, all of these things are sacrosanct. For the most part, police need a warrant to search them.

Your beach cooler probably qualifies as an “effect.” The thing is, beach cops will likely never have a warrant. What they will have is a mandate to enforce local alcohol laws—perhaps to protect fellow beachgoers from public intoxication or other rowdy behavior. So they may approach you and kindly ask, “Would you mind if I look in your cooler?”

The question is framed so innocently, most people will answer “no.” Answering any other way might even seem rude.

The problem is, the moment you tell the officer you don’t mind if he looks in your cooler, the Fourth Amendment goes out the window. You’ve consented to the search. The officer’s search is perfectly legal—or “reasonable,” in constitutional lingo. If Coronas are found and the beach doesn’t allow them, they will be used against you. You probably won’t be carried off in handcuffs, but you will be given a summons. That’s precisely what the NYPD has been doing this summer.

But suppose you answer, “Yes, I do mind, officer.” What then?

In a perfect world, the officer will walk away. In an imperfect world, the officer will insist or get testy, in which case you could state, this time plainly, that you do not consent to a search of your cooler. If the testiness persists, a search might still flow from the incident, but at least you will know you never consented. The sanctity of your cooler will have been breached, and you might have a lawsuit in your hands—it won’t matter whether you had Coronas or not.

In practical terms, nobody wants to get to that point, or even provoke a scene with police on a public beach. Maybe you’re with family or your girlfriend and want to appear cool, calm, and collected. So maybe you will want to be a model citizen and consent to the search, which is what most people do anyway.

Just know that the moment you do, your cooler will no longer be sacrosanct. Everything in it will be fair game.

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