1) When Can Police Search My Car?

Generally speaking when a car is stopped for a traffic violation, a general search of the vehicle is not permitted. However, if an officer has specific and articulable facts that his safety is in danger, he may then conduct a limited search for weapons. Additionally, under the automobile exception, if an officer is in possession of facts sufficient to support probable cause to believe a car contains contraband, it may be searched without a warrant.

A car can be searched under the following circumstances:

  1. An arrestee is within reaching distance of the vehicle when arrested.
  2. It is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense arrested for.
  3. There is a legitimate concern a suspect may be armed or have weapons.
  4. There is probable cause to believe a vehicle contains evidence of criminal activity unrelated to the traffic stop.
  5. A car is lawfully towed or removed from the scene, thus an inventory search is proper and,
  6. Other exigent circumstances require the search of the car.

2) Can Police Order Me Out Of The Car?

Yes. The Supreme Court of the United States in Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 98 S.Ct. 330 (1977) makes it pretty clear that an officer can oder a driver and it’s occupants out of the care anytime for any reason.

3) During A Car Search Can Police Move My Car?

Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42, 90 S.Ct. 1975 (1970) held that if there exists probable cause to search a car and it’s contents then that probable cause still exists at the station house when and if the car is moved there for processing. Therefore, a car may be moved during a search. Sometimes during a search if it’s dark and dangerous to finish a search at the scene of the traffic stop the car may be transported to a nearby police station where the lighting is better and where it’s safer.

4) Can Police Take My Car Apart During A Search?

In Illinois during a car search, the rule of thumb is that police can take apart, disassemble and remove any part they can put back without damaging it. People v. Kats, 2012 IL App (3d) 100683 (2012) involved a consent search where police used screwdrivers and upholstery tools to remove door panels. The court said removing the door panel was relatively easy and caused no structural damage to the car. The trooper did not alter or damage the vehicle or remove anything that could not be easily replaced. Additionally, the use of tools did not have any significant constitutional consequences.

5) Can Police Use A Drug Dog During A Car Search?

During an ordinary traffic stop a drug dog may be brought to scene so long as the duration of the traffic stop is not unduly prolonged. See Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. _, 135 S. Ct. 1609 (2014). If a sniff can be conducted in a reasonable amount of time, without adding time to the stop, then that is legal. Of course, if a drug dog alerts to the presence of contraband in a car police are within their rights to search the car. See also People v. Reedy, 2015 IL App (3d) 130955 (August).

6) What Exactly Constitutes Probable Cause Justifying A Warrantless Car Search?

Anything that an officer sees, hears or smells that informs the officer that there may be evidence of criminal activity in the car will constitute probable cause to search the car. Often this means an officer sees or smells drugs, but the rule is not that narrow. An officer is also free to ask questions to learn information from the car occupants that may create probable cause for a car search. See People v. Harris, 228 Ill.2d 222 (2008). Also, in People v. Hilt, 298 Ill.App.3d 121 (1998) the court said knotted pieces of a plastic baggie seen on the floorboard by an officer created probable cause to search the car.

7) When Police Ask Me If They Can Search My Car Do I Have To Let Them?

A consent search legally speaking is done when police don’t have probable cause to conduct a warrantless search. The court system considers a consent search to be voluntary. That means when an officers asks for your permission to search your car you always retain the right to refuse. You can choose to say “no” and deny police your consent to search. You cannot be punished or prosecuted if you say “no.”

8) What Is An Inventory Search?

Most police departs have a tow policy which informs and directs an officer to tow a car during specific scenarios. Towing a car after a minor traffic infraction remains rare and infrequent. Sometimes, however, if a driver is arrested the drivers car may have to be towed and removed from the roadway. When a car is going to be towed the law permits the officer to search the car to inventory and make note of all the valuables in the car. This inventory search does not require probable cause and automatically happens whenever a car is towed or taken into custody by police.

9) An Officer Asked Me To Sit In His Squad Car As He Wrote My Ticket, Is That Legal?

There is nothing illegal or improper about an officer asking you to sit in his squad car while he writes your warning or traffic citation. If you’ve been asked to do this it means you are not under arrest. More and more officers trained in drug detection are doing this. As they write the ticket they take that additional face time to learn more about the driver and their travel plans. If you truly are being “asked” to sit in the squad, presumably you have the right to politely decline the offer and remain seated in your own car as the officer completes your warning or citation.

10) What If I Have A Weapon In The Car?

If you are legally in possession of a weapon and are legally transporting it, you’ll likely be fine. But you should expect an officer interacting with you to have a lot of questions. You may be told to leave the weapon where it is or the officer may want to handle it while he’s engaged with. If you follow directions you should be fine. An officer is going to have a keen interest in anything that may be used to harm him or her. The presence of a weapon doesn’t necessarily mean your in trouble, but it may initiate a search of your car for other weapons by the officer. SCOTUS in Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032, 103 S.Ct. 3469 (1983) permitted a complete car search when an officer saw a large hunting knife on the floorboard or a stalled out car.