Constitutional law expert addresses Elon student concerns over search and seizure

Professor of Law at the Elon University School of Law Steve Friedland. Courtesy of Elon Law. 

Following an increased police presence on Elon University’s campus the first weekend of September, which resulted in an increase of alcohol-related citations, some students have questions about what to do if they are stopped by a town or campus police officer.

Senior scholar and professor at the Elon University School of Law Steve Friedland joined Elon Local News live Sept. 12 to discuss student rights.

Friedland is an initial member of the law school faculty and specializes in constitutional law, evidence law, criminal law and procedure. 

This interview has been edited for clarity.

When students are stopped by the police, what are their rights as a student?

The first thing I would say is this is about the Constitution. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution says there shall be no unreasonable stops, searches, or seizures and really focuses on searches and seizures. But that includes stops because that is a kind of seizure. The Fifth Amendment talks about the privilege against self-incrimination. So that involves statements. So our Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments will limit what the power of government can do. And when I say government, we have two governments in this country: federal and state. So when you hear police sirens behind you, that’s the police. 

When they stop you, my first suggestion is to keep your hands up on the wheel where they can see it. And if you have to reach into your glove compartment, tell them I’m reaching into my glove compartment because that is where I keep my registration. Because they might say, ‘License and registration, please,’ and I’m reaching into my pocket to get my license. Let them know what you’re doing. And again, keeping your hands visible, especially at night. 

Can they ask you to get out of your car? The answer is yes. Under the Constitution, there has been a Supreme Court case that says, for their safety, they can ask you to get out of the car, including other members of the car. 

Can they search us when they ask us to get out of the car?  The general answer actually is no, unless they have reasonable suspicion to believe that we are armed and dangerous. That’s the only reason they can do what they call stop and frisk. That’s based on a case called Terry versus Ohio. 

Can they now search the car? Generally, the answer is no. And if they ask you to search the car, we all have a constitutional right to say no. What percentage of people actually say no, 20 to 30%. Most people will say yes, but you have a constitutional right to say no, and if it’s a traffic stop, they can only keep there for around 20 minutes.” 

Do these rules that you’re explaining for traffic stops also apply to things like underage drinking and open container laws? When police are stopping students for underage drinking and open containers, what are their rights in those situations?

“The police can stop us when we’re walking or for other reasons if again, they have reasonable suspicion that a crime is underfoot. So, this could include underage drinking, it can include weapons, it can include drugs. Well, when it’s a law that is enforced, like underage drinking, the police have a right to enforce the law. 

Now, do they have a right to go into our houses to search for underage drinking? No, unless they’re invited in or, again, they have probable cause to believe that there’s either a fleeing felon, or imminent destruction of evidence, or if they think it’s underage drinking. As long as they have that reasonable suspicion, they can stop, ask questions and again, likely ask for identification.” 



https://www.elonnewsnetwork.com/article/2022/09/elon-university-law-school-professor-discusses-student-rights