Our Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures means that police must have a warrant to search us or our belongings most of the time. There are a few exceptions, one of which is called the automobile exception.
In the case of automobile searches, you should be aware of the law so that you are not intimidated by police into giving up your rights. Two situations where the warrant exception would apply is a search of your vehicle for evidence and contraband or after you are arrested.
Vehicle Search for Evidence & Contraband
Even though our vehicle is a private place, it is not given as much protection as our home is. So long as a search is done reasonably and probable cause exists to support the belief that certain evidence of a crime or contraband will be found in the vehicle, police usually don’t need to get a warrant. The reason for this exception to the warrant requirement is that vehicles are mobile and evidence can be easily lost if it is not seized right away. This does not give police a free pass to search your car for no reason. They must have a clear reason for searching the vehicle. See Coolidge v. New Hampshire.
It used to be unclear whether police could open containers they find when searching a vehicle. Now, the law is clear that there really is no distinction between general searches that reveal containers or packages and searches for particular containers inside a car. So long as there is probable cause to support the search, it is deemed reasonable. It may seem like a silly distinction, but these rules are to protect your rights and prevent police abuse of their powers. See California v. Acevedo.
Vehicle Search Incident to Arrest
When a person gets arrested, police are typically allowed to perform a search of the arrestee following that arrest to remove weapons or collect any evidence that person may have on them in connection with that crime. Searches incident to arrest are valid without a separate warrant only if they are of the person being arrested and the area within their immediate control. See Chimel v. California.
When the person arrested is taken from a vehicle, the question becomes whether that search of the arrestee also allows police to search the car they were just in. Police used to be able to search inside without a warrant. This practice was challenged in the case of Arizona v. Gant. In Gant, a man was arrested for driving with a suspended license upon leaving a house where two others had been arrested on drug charges. After Gant was secured in the back of the police car, police then searched his vehicle and found cocaine inside a jacket pocket in the backseat. Since his crime was driving on a suspended license there was no reason for police to believe evidence of his crime was hiding in the car. Also, since Gant was already in the patrol car, he didn’t pose any danger to officer safety so searching his car for weapons also wasn’t justified. His rights were violated and the rule of law changed because of his asserted defense.
Whatever the circumstances, know that you have rights that you do not have to give up if police ask you to. Your best defense will come from having a qualified Illinois Criminal Defense Attorney on your side.