When Can Police Search Your Vehicle In Illinois?

The police can pull you over for something as minor as failing to signal before changing lanes. However, a routine traffic violation can quickly escalate should an officer find something illegal in your vehicle, like drugs or other contraband.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the "right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." Police must have a warrant to search a person or vehicle unless they already have probable cause that it contains contraband or evidence of a crime. A Fourth Amendment violation will almost certainly result in the evidence obtained during the search being excluded in court.

However, a few exceptions to the warrant requirement allow police to search cars during routine traffic stops without having probable cause.

Consent

Police officers will almost always ask for permission to search a vehicle during a traffic stop. If granted, the entire car can be searched, including a locked glove box, a locked trunk and any closed containers inside the car (unless the driver limits the consent). However, you have a constitutional right to refuse an officer's request to search your vehicle. A polite, "Officer, I'd prefer you not search my car," will do just fine.

Plain View

Police can seize any item they can see from a lawful location if they have probable cause to believe the item is contraband. For example, an officer can seize a marijuana pipe he or she sees from outside a car during a traffic stop if he or she believes it is drug paraphernalia. This warrant exception applies only when an item is in the open, but not if the officer has to move things around. The answer is to not keep anything suspicious out in the open.

Inventory Search

The U.S. Supreme Court's Arizona v. Gant (2009) decision limited police officers' ability to search a vehicle after arresting a person for an offense. As a fallback, police are now more likely to impound a vehicle after an arrest to search it without a warrant during an inventorying process.

Police departments take inventory of everything inside an impounded vehicle both to protect themselves from potentially dangerous items and prevent claims that items were stolen from a car or truck. To avoid this, ask officers to contact someone to come retrieve the car to avoid it being impounded.

Knowing these search warrant exceptions will help you protect your privacy and right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. However, if you or a loved one has been charged with a crime based on a police search, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney to discuss your situation and your options.

  • Illinois State Bar Association
  • Northwest Suburban Bar Association

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