The general rule under the laws of the City of Chicago, as well as across the state of Illinois and the entire country is that the police aren’t allowed to just search you or your possessions, cars or homes just because they feel like it. The Fourth Amendment protects citizens (and non-citizens) against such unreasonable searches and seizures. Although the technical definition of probable cause is rather detailed, it basically means that they need reasonable grounds or a good solid reason to search for things. It doesn’t matter much whether you “look guilty”, whether you won’t look them in the eye, or whether you’re sweating profusely; a mere “hunch” is simply not enough to justify a search in the absence of what is referred to as “probable cause” under the law. But sometimes, a person will actually give a police officer the “probable cause” they need, even though the police would not have otherwise had the right to search. Some examples include:
“It Never Hurts to Ask”
At some point when you were growing up, your mother may have told you that “It never hurts to ask!”. After all, it might have been that your Aunt didn’t intend to eat the other half of that delicious sandwich or the person you were too shy to ask out to the dance didn’t actually have a date after all. What’s the worst thing that might happen if you asked? Nothing, really. So, just ask.
Well, it seems that most police officers have also learned that it never hurts to ask. These days, it’s not strange at all to be asked a few unusual questions after being pulled over even for a minor traffic offense reason like speeding or failure to reduce speed. It may seem odd, but the next time you’re speaking to the police on the side of the road, don’t be surprised if you’re asked questions like “do you have a weapon on you or in the car?”, “do you have any drugs or alcohol in the car?” or “have you used any drugs or alcohol recently?”.
Why do police ask people questions such as these? Because it never hurts to ask! It’s not illegal to ask such questions, unless doing so unnecessarily delays the police stop. Police know that people generally like to be helpful. They also know that although some people are inclined to lie to them, many will tell the truth when confronted on the spot.
But the main purpose of asking such questions is that if the person actually admits that they do have weapons or drugs or stolen items, no search warrant or further probable cause is required; the police officer is generally allowed to immediately place the offender into custody and conduct a search to retrieve the items.
There are many circumstances where the police searched a person or vehicle and later in court the Judge threw out the evidence because of a lack of probable cause to believe that a crime had been or was about to be committed and accordingly, that a search was justified. When this happens, the whole case often gets dismissed. But unfortunately, if the person admits that they have something illegal first, such a motion to suppress will usually not be successful and the evidence can then be used against the defendant.
“In Plain View”
There are other circumstances where the person never admits to the police that they have something illegal, but basically gives the police officer the probable cause they need by leaving the item out “in plain view”.
Have you ever driven through a toll booth and seen an Illinois State Trooper just standing there looking at you as you threw your coins into the basket? Probably seemed strange at the time. But what they were actually doing was looking for probably cause to arrest or ticket you. That’s because police are allowed to stand, walk and look anywhere they want as long as it’s considered to be a public place or they’re allowed to be there as part of their police authority. Although it’s an unusual place to stand, a toll booth is a place that they’re allowed to stand if they wish. Similarly, police can walk around in a public parking lot or a forest preserve and look into car windows. Can they walk up onto your private property front lawn and look through your kitchen window to see what you’re doing during dinner? Of course not. But they can look into windows of cars parked on the street or cars that they have pulled over for a traffic violation, because these locations are considered to be public.
What are they looking for? Probable cause that a crime has been committed or is being committed. Once they have that, they’ll be allowed to search the vehicle whether or not you give consent. Some of things that they’re looking for include:
- Open or empty alcohol bottles or cans
- Closed alcohol containers if car occupants are under 21
- Drug paraphernalia
- Items that appear to have been stolen
- Stripped steering column or other evidence that the car is stolen
- Burglary tools
- Children or adults that aren’t seat- belted or properly restrained
- Any evidence of a crime at all
Especially at night, police will typically use their flashlights to look inside your car. They do this not only to make sure that their safety isn’t at risk, but to visually search for items or evidence such as described above. They pay careful attention to things sticking out from under seats, items in the ashtray, and suspicious bulges in the clothing of occupants. At Mitchell S. Sexner & Associates LLC, we’ve had many cases over the years where the police spotted suspicious or illegal items in the person’s car that the driver didn’t even know were there. Usually, this was because the car was messy or full of various garbage. What’s the lesson? Keep your car clean!
When police are in a location that they’re legally entitled to be, they aren’t limited to just the use of their sight though. They may smell cannabis and use this as probable cause for a search. Or they could even hear something (such as an abducted person in the trunk) that would give them the probable cause to take further and immediate action. In situations where the police are unsure about whether they have proper probable cause to conduct a search, they may sometimes ask a judge for a warrant (permission) to search a car as well.
Experienced Chicago Criminal Attorneys
Police look for opportunities to arrest and charge people with crimes. It’s obviously best to try avoid helping the police arrest you. So, don’t give them reasons to charge you with a crime by having illegal items in your car. If you are arrested however, contact Mitchell S. Sexner & Associates LLC 24/7 to be put into contact with an experienced criminal attorney. Our phone number is (312) 644-0444.