Controversy Over A Proposed NYC Law To Protect People From Unreasonable Search By Police

Credit: Reuters File Photo/Shannon Stapleton
Credit: Reuters File Photo/Shannon Stapleton


While it’s hard to imagine that a proposed law intended to inform us and protect our Constitutional rights would breed controversy anywhere on U.S soil, that is exactly what’s happening in the New York City Council, and now it’s even spilling out into the Bronx neighborhoods served by those feuding council members.

It’s called the Consent To Search Bill, identified as Intro 541, and it would allow police to conduct even unreasonable searches, but only if they properly inform us of our right to refuse consent, and only if they document any consent we give them.

The way things are now, if you don’t know what your rights are, you just don’t have any rights. Period.

This law explicitly and specifically does not apply to searches that are legally justified, or where a search warrant has been obtained, or an arrest made. It certainly does not apply to situations where a police officer suspects that a person is armed and dangerous. No consent would be needed in any of those cases.  It says so clearly and indisputably in the bill.

The consent requirement only applies to searches that –let’s face it– probably shouldn’t be conducted at all. It only applies to searches that are not legally justified, that is, what the U.S. Constitution calls unreasonable searches.

If Intro 541 becomes law, we would be entitled to be informed that we have the legal right to refuse the legally unjustified search, and we could exercise that right by not consenting to a search.

This Constitutional right, like all of our Constitutional rights, already exists and this proposed law is only about informing people to make sure that they are aware of their right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure by government, granted under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

Shouldn’t every American citizen and U.S. resident embrace such a law? One would think so, but, sadly, that is not the case.

So what’s the problem?

“We cannot be considering legislation that would require a police officer to ask a suspect, ‘Can I search you?’ and get their permission in writing or verbally — allowing them to rescind that permission at any point,” said Bronx City Councilman James Vacca to CBS News.

Vacca is way off base here. Because he fails to mention that the informed, documented consent is needed only for searches for which there is no legal justification. Moreover, there is no such requirement for anyone who would be described as a “suspect.”

In a letter addressed to the two community boards and precinct council presidents in his District, Vacca repeats the same gross inaccuracies and, based on these false facts, concludes that “it will endanger public safety and hurt our police as they try to keep our streets safe.”

If that is true then Vacca would have us believe that today, without this law, the police are already incapable of protecting the public and themselves from anyone who is wise enough to know his/her rights and bold enough to exercise them.

Because those who are aware of their rights already exercise them. All this new law would do is inform us of our rights, and ensure us that our rights are protected by the consent procedure.

That sounds fair and reasonable. And there is no logical reason why public safety should be at risk just because everybody knows their Constitutional rights.

Does the U.S Constitution endanger public safety? That is what the opposing argument boils down to.

Did the sky fall in New Jersey? Did it fall in Colorado? Both states already have a legal requirement to inform people of their Fourth Amendment right.

Even in New York City, some people already enjoy this right, just because they know they have it and they use it. This law will ensure that everybody enjoys their right that is guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. What’s there to argue?

But the beat goes on.

“Can you imagine someone who has committed a crime giving permission to a police officer and agreeing to a search?” Vacca asks.

No I can’t, and this bill is not at all about that. The police do not have to get permission from someone who has committed a crime, with or without this law.

In case you haven’t noticed, all of the arguments against Intro 541 have one thing in common. They all seem to require distorting the truth and misrepresenting the actual text of the proposed law.

What does that tell you? It shouts volumes.

In some places, such as New Jersey, court precedents, that is, case laws, already require police to advise people that they have the right to refuse consent for an unreasonable search. There, too, it does not apply where there is an arrest, or a search warrant, or probable cause. In other jurisdictions, such as Colorado, the law is statutory.

Let’s be clear. This is a law that would enhance policing and promote the achievement of CPRR: Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect … and Responsibility. I added the extra R because it needs to be added.

Intro 541, the Consent To Search Bill, is not a law to protect criminals. It is a law to protect  law-abiding citizens and our rights under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Every New Yorker, including you, me, and especially those elected to serve the people and those wearing the blue uniform, should fully embrace this proposed law, which is consistent with the United States of America that was prescribed in our Constitution.


Know Your Rights: What To Do If You’re Stopped By Police, Immigration Agents or the FBI

Read the proposed bill and see which City Council Members currently support it


About Richard Jannaccio:

Richard Jannaccio is an award-winning journalist, community activist, creator and administrator of the popular Facebook group City Islanders & Friends, and a resident of the Bronx.


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