Jennifer Groscup, Scripps College – Consent to Search

On Scripps College Week:  Do you have to let the government search you?

Jennifer Groscup, associate professor of psychology, has the answer.

My primary area of research interest is in the intersection of psychology and law. I am particularly interested in legal decision making, expert evidence, scientific evidence, and the affect of attitudes and pre-existing knowledge on perceptions of players and procedures in the legal system.

Consent to Search


The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects our right to be free from “unreasonable searches and seizures” by the government. The police typically must get a warrant before they can conduct a search, but one way that a search could be reasonable without a warrant is if the person being searched consented to or agreed to be searched.

Research indicates that the vast majority of people – over 90% – consent to be searched when the police ask, regardless of whether they know something illegal will be found or not. Psychology can help us better understand why. For example, why do guilty people say “yes”? “Do people understand that they can say no, and if they were told they could say no, would they?” Generally, police officers are not required to tell people they can say “no” to a search. In some states, the police warn people of their right to say “no,” similar to them telling people them their Miranda rights.

Our research looks at what happens when people are told they have the right to say “no” to a search request. In several studies, we created a situation where we can ask participants if we can search them. When we ask to search, we either warn people they have the right to say no or we do not, to see if such a warning will change their decision to consent or how they feel about the search request.

We have found people agree to be searched at the same high rate regardless of whether they have been told they have the right to say “no.” However, warnings made people feel better about the search request, such as feeling freer to leave the situation, making them feel that their options were clear, and decreasing pressure to consent.