As you sit on the shoulder of the road and watch in your rearview mirror as an Illinois police officer approaches your car, it is natural to feel nervous and anxious. Your hands may shake, and you may begin to sweat. You may even feel angry or insulted that a cop would pull you over, and this can cause you to act without thinking. Do you know what to do if the officer asks you to step out of the car? Do you know when police can search your vehicle without your permission?

From the moment police engage their flashing lights, your rights are in jeopardy. Officers may take advantage of the fact that few people really understand their rights during a traffic stop. Knowing how far police can go when they pull you over is critical to protecting your rights.

What is a lawful search?

The first thing to understand is that police may not pull you over without a valid reason. This may be as simple as noticing you have a taillight out or as serious as witnessing you drive through a red light. Officers may suspect you have been drinking if they see your car swerve over the line or if you are driving erratically. Once they pull you over, officers can search your car under the following conditions:

  • You give them permission to search, which most advisors do not recommend.
  • Police fear for their safety, such as suspecting you have a weapon in the vehicle.
  • Police have obtained a valid search warrant.
  • They have already placed you under arrest.
  • Officers have probable cause to suspect you have incriminating evidence in your car.

Probable cause is more than just seeing your taillight out or even running a red light. If police see an open container of alcohol, notice a weapon on the front seat, smell alcohol or marijuana on you, or observe your bloodshot eyes and slurred words, they will certainly have reason to ask you to get out of the car so they can take a closer look. Additionally, if your car matches that of one related to a crime, you can expect police to conduct a search.

Even if police seem to have a valid reason for searching your vehicle during a routine traffic stop, your attorney can examine the circumstances surrounding the search and any evidence police collected. If the court determines the search was not legal, whatever police claim to have found in your vehicle may be excluded from the evidence against you.