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As summer hits full tilt, beach blankets, sandals, and ice cold coolers will be making their ways to the shore. But police may want to search that last one.
Beachgoers in New York City have reported being asked to let roving cops see what's in their coolers. Cops may be looking for alcohol or open containers, but you still have rights.
So can police search your cooler at the beach?
Yes, If You Let Them
The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects residents from warrantless and unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. In general, that means that police officers cannot approach you without a warrant or probable cause and search you and your possessions for evidence of a crime. These constitutional principles apply in your home, car, and even at the beach.
However, this doesn't stop police from asking to look in your cooler. If you say "yes," then there is no violation of your rights from a search that you consented to. Courts have upheld these sorts of searches in cars and homes, so your beach cooler isn't likely to be much different.
Remember, you never have to consent to a search of yourself or your belongings, whether you're in your car or on the beach. But if you say "yes," then you've given your permission to search.
To be fair, police may not be curious about what's in your cooler to ruin your fun. They might actually be trying to enforce the city or state laws, many of which do not allow alcohol or public intoxication at public beaches.
Police may arrest and search a person without a warrant if there is sufficient probable cause to believe that person has committed a crime -- potentially including what the New York Post calls "quality-of-life violations." These violations (including open container offenses) are often infractions, which involve only fines but no jail time. But police can still arrest and search you and your immediate belongings for minor offenses when an arrest is supported by probable cause.
So if officers see you take a swig from a beer bottle, then return it to your cooler, they can possibly arrest you and search your cooler. However, this kind of search is only permitted upon arrest (and is known as a "search incident to arrest"); there is no such thing as a search incident to a citation or ticket.
Try to be safe and lawful at the beach, but know that you can draw a line in the sand when it comes to your constitutional rights.