You were driving to a friend’s one night when police pulled you over for a broken headlight.  Noticing a bag of white powder on the floor, the officer suspected you had illegal narcotics.  She searched your car, taking the baggie.  You then were arrested for a narcotics offense.

Can police search your car without a warrant?  What can you do?

Under Illinois law, an officer who lawfully stops your vehicle and has probable cause to believe you have contraband may lawfully search any closed containers within your car that might reasonably contain that contraband. An officer may properly seize evidence without a warrant if: (1) the officer was lawfully in a position to view the evidence, (2) the evidence’s incriminating character was immediately apparent, and (3) the officer had a lawful right of access to the object itself.

For example in People v. Villareal, police stopped a car in which defendant was a passenger over a missing front license plate.  The officer smelled cannabis, and another passengers gave the officer two full bags.  The officer searched the defendant’s purse, found her fake ID and arrested her for a series of related offenses.

The state argued the search was legal because the purse was a closed container that could have reasonably contained the cannabis. During the search, the fake ID entered plain view.  The legality of the search came down to whether the officer recognized the ID’s incriminating character before or after he removed it from the purse.  The officer testified he could tell it was fake as soon as he saw it.  Based on that, the court upheld the search.

If you are charged with a crime or traffic offense, contact an experienced attorney immediately.  An attorney can review your case for your best possible defense.  Did the officers have probable cause to stop the car?  Could the container reasonably contain the suspected contraband?  For example, an officer searching for a gun cannot look inside a tiny box.  Was the incriminating nature of the evidence immediately apparent?  If there is white powder on the passenger seat, is it obviously cocaine or could it be powdered sugar from a donut?

The legality of a search is a highly fact specific question.  Different judges can view those facts very differently.  An attorney who is familiar with your courthouse may be in a better position to judge how to present those facts to your particular judge.

If you have questions about this or another related Illinois criminal or traffic matter, please contact Matt Keenan at 847-568-0160 or email

(Besides Skokie, Matt Keenan also serves the communities of Arlington Heights, Chicago, Deerfield, Des Plaines, Evanston, Glenview, Morton Grove, Mount Prospect, Niles, Northbrook, Park Ridge, Rolling Meadows, Wilmette and Winnetka.)


About mdkeenan

A criminal and school law attorney with over 17 years of experience, I have successfully represented clients all over the Chicago area. My practice includes DUI, felony, criminal, misdemeanor, homicide, internet crime, retail theft, traffic offenses, cyberstalking, drug crimes, weapons violations, domestic battery and juvenile crime. I also represent families involving school cases. My clients come from all over the Chicago area including Skokie, Wilmette, Niles, Northbrook, Glenview, Evanston, Winnetka, Highland park, Northfield, Park Ridge, Des Plaines and Mount Prospect. I am a member of the ACLU and the Illinois State Bar Association. I serve as a volunteer for First Defense Legal Aid. Se habla espanol.
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