When Can the Police Search My Car?

Police-Vehicle-Search-300x200It is common to have a client come into my office who is facing criminal charges resulting from a search of their vehicle by a police officer. Many of those clients want to know whether the police had the right to search their vehicle and whether I can have the evidence that was recovered thrown out of Court. There’s no simple answer to this question. Whether the police had the right to search the vehicle and whether I can convince the Court to throw out the evidence depends on the facts of each individual case. I want to talk a little bit about the general rules and what the constitutional limits are when it comes to the police searching a motor vehicle.

Generally speaking, the police cannot search your vehicle without a warrant. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures when we have a reasonable expectation of privacy. Courts have consistently ruled that we do have a reasonable expectation of privacy in our motor vehicles. At the same time, the Courts have recognized that there is an “automobile exception” to the search warrant requirement when it comes to our cars. The “automobile exception” provides that individuals have a lower expectation of privacy when it comes to their cars as opposed to their homes. The Fourth amendment creates minimum requirements that apply to all states and in all cases. However, states are free to grant their citizens more rights than what’s afforded to them by the United States Constitution.

The police can search your vehicle without a warrant only under certain limited circumstances. The limited circumstances are set forth as follows:

1.You Consent-If you give the police officer permission to search your vehicle, then the police officer can search your vehicle for any reason or for no reason. Your consent to allow a police officer to search your vehicle does not have to be in writing.

2.Police Protection-If the police reasonably believe that a search is necessary for their protection, they will be allowed to conduct a search for that purpose.

3.Search Incident to a Lawful Arrest-If you have been arrested the police can conduct a search if a search is related to what you are being arrested for. In other words, if you are being arrested for drugs, the police can conduct a search for drugs. The police cannot search for weapons. The police may stop your vehicle if the officer has a reasonable and articulable suspicion that you violated a traffic law. Generally, if you are being stopped for a traffic offense, the police officer may not search your vehicle. However, if during the course of the stop for a traffic offense the officer has a reasonable and articulable suspicion that a crime is being committed, the officer may search your vehicle. A common example is when a police officer stops a motorist for speeding and when they confront the driver smell marijuana. This may give the police officer the reasonable and articulable suspicion that a crime is being committed and that they may be able to pull you out of your car and conduct a search for drugs.

If your car is being towed and impounded, the police may have the right to conduct an inventory search of your vehicle. This type of search of a vehicle is very common in many criminal cases. The police cannot tow your car and impounded it just so they can have a reason to search your vehicle. The police claim that the reason for such a search is to protect them from claims by the owners of the vehicles that items are missing. This type of search can allow the police to conduct a very thorough and comprehensive search of your vehicle. They can open any locked compartments are boxes inside the vehicle or inside the trunk. There are numerous examples of cars that have been towed for parking ticket violations that have been searched at the pound and drugs or guns have been recovered. When the police are conducting an inventory search, the reason for that search must be for inventory purposes.

4.Probable Cause-If the police officer has probable cause to believe that evidence of a crime exists in your vehicle, they may be allowed to search your vehicle without a warrant. Probable cause is arguably the most litigated question in the criminal law. The general definition of probable cause is “reasonable grounds.” Whether the police had probable cause depends on the specific facts of each individual case. I’d like to think of probable cause as the police officer having specific articulable facts to support their belief that they had reason to believe that evidence of a crime was inside the vehicle. Probable cause requires more than a mere hunch by the police officer. The police officer has to explain with concrete facts why they believed that they had the right to search the vehicle. It is common for a police officer to testify that they searched the vehicle based on their experience in a high crime area. More than a mere hunch is required for probable cause. If a police officer testifies that they smelled burnt cannabis when they encountered the driver of the vehicle, that may be sufficient probable cause to justify a search. But a police officer testifying that he was patrolling a neighborhood known for drug sales as a reason to search a vehicle, that will probably not be sufficient probable cause.

Unlike what we see on police television shows, the police cannot search your vehicle whenever they want. There are strict rules that apply to the search of a motor vehicle. If the police violate the rules, the Court may throw out any evidence recovered as a result of the search. It is absolutely critical that you consult with an experienced criminal defense lawyer if you are being charged in a criminal case and the police and prosecutors are seeking to use evidence seized as a result of a search of your motor vehicle. An experienced criminal defense lawyer will know whether the search was legally justified and will know what to do to make sure that the evidence is thrown out and not used against you.

James Dimeas is a nationally-recognized, award-winning, criminal defense lawyer with over-27 years of experience handling criminal cases throughout Chicago, Cook County, DuPage County, Kane County, and Lake County. Attorney and Practice Magazine gave James Dimeas the “Top 10 Criminal Defense Attorney Award for Illinois.” The National Academy of Criminal Defense Attorneys gave James Dimeas the “Top 10 Attorney Award for the State of Illinois”. The National Trial Lawyers named James Dimeas a “Top 100 Criminal Defense Trial Lawyer. The American Institute of Criminal Law Attorneys named James Dimeas a “10 Best Attorney for Client Satisfaction.” James Dimeas was named a “Best DUI Attorney” and a “Best Criminal Defense Lawyer in Chicago” by Expertise. Recently, the American Society of Legal Advocates named James Dimeas a “Top 100 Criminal Defense Lawyer In the State of Illinois For the Year 2018.” AVVO rates James Dimeas as ‘Superb”, the highest rating possible for any criminal defense attorney in the United States.

If you are facing criminal charges, you can contact James Dimeas anytime for a free and confidential consultation. You can always speak to James Dimeas personally by calling him at 847-807-7405.

Additional Blogs:

Reliability of Eyewitness Testimony, by James G. Dimeas, Chicago Criminal Lawyer Blog, December 20, 2017.

Can I Vote In Illinois If I Have a Felony Conviction, by James G. Dimeas, Chicago Criminal Lawyer Blog, November 2, 2017.