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Search your rights before letting police search your car

If you are like most Illinois residents, seeing flashing lights in your rearview mirror causes at least a temporary panic. During the traffic stop, the officer may ask to search your vehicle. Should you say yes?

The simple answer is that you do not have to consent to the search. In fact, if an officer requests your consent to the search, it may be because he or she does not have any legal reason for the search. Even so, the law and the highest court in the land provide police with some extra leeway when it comes to searching vehicles.

What does the law say about vehicle searches?

The courts have decided that your expectation of privacy is significantly less in your car than it is in your home. Therefore, police can search your vehicle without obtaining a search warrant under the following circumstances:

  • You consent to the search.
  • The officer obtains a valid search warrant.
  • The officer claims there's probable cause to believe evidence of a crime is in the car.
  • The officer places you under arrest and the search is incidental to that arrest.
  • The officer believes that the search will protect the safety of everyone involved.

If a search takes place without one of the above circumstances being present, the court could exclude any evidence found by the officers and not allow prosecutors to use it against you in court -- unless the officer proves probable cause existed.

What's probable cause?

If an officer believes that you are committing a crime, this may establish probable cause for a search of your vehicle. For example, if an officer were to smell marijuana coming from your vehicle, that might provide the probable cause needed for the search.

If an officer sees an item lying on a seat that suggests possible criminal activity, a further search may not require a warrant. The law considers the item as being in plain view, so there is no need for a warrant. Keeping with the previous example, if an officer can see a glass pipe with a suspicious residue just by looking into the window, that could provide the probable cause to conduct the search.

What the law considers "in plain view" can even extend to smells. If an officer, or even a police dog, smells something like marijuana coming from your vehicle, a search could be legal.

What if an officer arrests me after a search?

If you do end up in custody based on the results of a vehicle search, you retain the right to challenge the search and the charges against you. Closer scrutiny of the circumstances could reveal that a police officer violated your rights by not legally conducted the search. If that turns out to be the case, the court may suppress evidence found during the search, which could have a significant impact on the outcome of your case.

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