Voluntariness, consent, and all that

Sommers & Bohm, The Voluntariness of Voluntary Consent: Consent Searches and Psychology of Compliance. 128 YALE L. J. 1962 (2019).

Consent-based searches are by far the most ubiquitous form of search undertaken by police. A key legal inquiry in these cases is whether consent was granted voluntarily. This Essay suggests that fact finders’ assessments of voluntariness are likely to be impaired by a systematic bias in social perception. Fact finders are likely to underappreciate the degree to which suspects feel pressure to comply with police officers’ requests to perform searches.

These findings suggest that decision makers judging the voluntariness of consent consistently underestimate the pressure to comply with intrusive requests. This is problematic because it indicates that a key justification for suspicionless consent searches—that they are voluntary—relies on an assessment that is subject to bias. The results thus provide support to critics who would like to see consent searches banned or curtailed, as they have been in several states.

The results also suggest that a popular reform proposal—requiring police to advise citizens of their right to refuse consent—may have little effect. This corroborates previous observational studies that find negligible effects of Miranda warnings on confession rates among interrogees, and little change in rates of consent once police start notifying motorists of their right to refuse vehicle searches. We suggest that these warnings are ineffective because they fail to address the psychology of compliance. The reason people comply with police, we contend, is social, not informational. The social demands of police-citizen interactions persist even when people are informed of their rights. It is time to abandon the myth that notifying people of their rights makes them feel empowered to exercise those rights.