Part 3: Probable Cause & The Automobile Exception
If probable cause exists for the vehicle itself, is it lawful to perform a warrantless search of the vehicle?
May containers be opened and searched?
It is lawful to perform a search of the entire vehicle. Any containers that could hold the object of the search may be opened.
The Warrant Requirement Exception For Vehicles Is Still Alive But Gant Says You Need Probable Cause
The warrant exception for cars can be stated this way:
If there is probable cause to believe a car has contraband or evidence of a crime then the car may be searched without a warrant.
Cars Are Mobile That Creates An Exigent Circumstance
No Separate Exigency Requirement
Maryland v. Dyson
Let’s jump into it by looking at Maryland v. Dyson, 527 U.S. 465, 119 S.Ct. 2013 (1999). This case makes it clear that the automobile exception has no separate exigency requirement. This means even if law enforcement has time to go get a warrant they don’t have to.
In this case, police received a reliable confidential tip that defendant would be returning to Maryland in a specific car with a large quantity of cocaine. The car was stopped and searched and 23 grams of crack cocaine were found in a duffel bag in the trunk.
The defense argued that as police waited for the car to return to Maryland they had time to go get a warrant; they should have done that. The warrant exception for cars exists because cars are mobile and transient. However, the court said the warrant exception for cars is a bright line rule that applies automatically.
Automobiles Are Mobile
Carroll v. U.S.
The automobile exception to the warrant requirement began with a case from 1925. Carroll v. U.S., 267 U.S. 132 (1925) is the prohibition era decision. Prohibition agents were on patrol along the highway from Detroit to Grand Rapids. This was a known center for smuggling booze.
The Carroll boys were known bootleggers in Grand Rapids.
Agents saw the boys on the highway heading towards Grand Rapids half way from Detroit. The car was stopped and searched and intoxicating liquor was confiscated.
The court noted it was quite impossible to get a warrant to stop an automobile. Before the warrant could be secured the car would be beyond the reach of the officer along with its load of contraband liquor.
The federal agents in this case had sufficient probable cause to believe the Carrol boys were smuggling liquor. If a warrantless search of a water vessel was legal then the same justification permitted the warrantless search of the Carroll car.
The Odor Of Cannabis
People v. Stout
In 1925 booze was the reason for car searches.
Today there are other reasons to search a car. The Illinois Supreme Court in People v. Stout, 106 Ill.2d 77 (1985) has made it clear that the odor of cannabis emanating from a car gives an officer probable cause to search the car.
A cannabis search includes the whole car and every passenger in the car.
People v. Williams
Illustrating the point is People v. Williams, 2013 IL App (4th) 110857.
Williams was a male passenger in a car stopped for speeding. Defendants wife was driving and their kids were in the backseat. The officer immediately detected a strong odor of cannabis. Defendant was removed from the car and patted down. Police found $1,200 in cash in his front pocket.
Defendant refused to take off his shoes when asked. Instead, he was handcuffed and placed in the backseat of a squad. Inside the car officers located six unknown pills and a stun gun.
Defendant’s was then arrested. The officer then returned to the squad car and removed defendant’s shoes where they found 43 grams of cannabis.
The court concluded that the search of the car and defendant’s shoes was permitted because of the original odor of cannabis.
People v. Boyd
See also People v. Boyd, 298 Ill.App.3d 11118 (1998) which held that it would be absurd to not permit the search of passengers when an odor of cannabis can be detected in the car.
People v. Smith – When Probable Cause Evaporates
Don’t ignore cases like People v. Smith, 315 Ill.App.3d 772 (2000). Defendant was the female driver stopped for a broken headlight.
The officer noticed that she shoved a clear plastic baggie that had a knot in it toward the bottom of her purse in a very rapid, furtive manner. She was getting nervous and sweating. Defendant hesitated and eventually said “no” when asked if she had drugs in the car.
She did not respond when asked for consent to search the car. Instead the officer asked to search her purse. She bit her lip and opened the purse for the officer and began going through the pockets herself while showing the officer the inside of the purse.
When the officer asked about the unopened pocket she opened it and the officer saw the plastic baggie with a knot in it containing a white lumpy substance. The officer thought it was crack cocaine, but the driver said it was just her pills. At that point, the officer took defendant’s purse to his squad car and began searching it.
He quickly removed and examined the plastic bag with the knot. It was not crack cocaine. Instead it was 10 pills with a large E stamped on them. He continued going through the purse where he found a crack pipe. The reviewing court threw out this evidence.
The officer had no basis for probable cause other than nervousness. Nervousness alone is not a characteristic that generally invokes reasonable suspicion, especially when one is stopped by the police for a traffic violation.
Automobile Exception Does Not Reach Private Property
Collins v. Virginia
In Collins v. Virginia, 584 U.S. ___, 138 S. Ct. 166 (2018) officers saw some Facebook posts depicting what they believed to be a stolen motorcycle. The bike was traced to a house owned by the suspect’s girlfriend. The suspect lived there as well staying a few nights per week.
An officer walked onto the property up to the top of the driveway to where the bike was parked under an enclosed portion of the driveway along side the house. The officer removed the tarp to photograph the VIN number.
This search confirmed the bike was stolen.
The United States Supreme Court held that the automobile exception does not afford the necessary lawful right of access to search a vehicle parked within a home or its curtilage because it does not justify an intrusion on a person’s property.
The automobile exception does not permit an officer without a warrant to enter a home or its curtilage in order to search a vehicle.
To allow an officer to rely on the automobile exception to gain entry into a house or its curtilage for the purpose of conducting a vehicle search would unmoor the exception from its justifications and render hollow the core Fourth Amendment protection the Constitution extends to a person’s home.
Police Can Ask Any Questions And That Don’t Prolong The Stop
People v. Harris
Courts are very sensitive to the time and duration of a traffic stop. That means you have to be as well. This was encapsulated by People v. Harris, 228 Ill.2d 222 (2008).
Defendant was a passenger in a car that was stopped by police after the driver made an illegal left turn.
In the course of the traffic stop, the officer asked defendant for his identification and he complied with the request. The officer conducted a computer search that revealed an outstanding warrant and placed defendant under arrest. The search incident to his arrest revealed cocaine and drug paraphernalia in the pocket of defendant’s jacket.
Much of the central finding from the Cummings case which described the ordinary scope of every traffic stop is reflected in this Harris case.
Defendant argued in Harris that since he was the passenger the officer had no right to ask for his identification. Once the driver had been arrested for revoked license the business of the traffic stop had ended and the passenger should have been left alone.
The Illinois Supreme Court thought otherwise.
A warrant check on the occupants of a lawfully stopped vehicle does not violate the fourth amendment. If a traffic stop is not unnecessarily prolonged for the purpose of conducting the check and if the stop is otherwise executed in a reasonable manner then it will be reasonable.
Unrelated Questions Don’t Prolong The Stop
People v. Salinas
Don’t get fooled by the line of cases saying that questioning that is unrelated to the traffic stop is unreasonable. These cases say unrelated questioning fundamentally alters the scope of a traffic stop. Those cases are dead. Harris overruled those opinions.
This is further highlighted in People v. Salinas, 383 Ill. App. 3d 481 (2008).
In this case, police received a tip from a confidential informant that a certain person was going to be receiving a shipment of drugs. Police set up surveillance on the man and several others. Police noticed that the man emerged from a house with a large plastic bag containing a square shaped box that was approximately 15 inches high and 6 inches wide.
The man placed the box in a Jeep and drove off with a female passenger. A marked unit was ordered to stop the Jeep. A different undercover officer who was following it saw it make two lane changes without signaling. The undercover officer quickly walked to defendant’s Jeep and revealed that he was part of a larger narcotics investigation.
He told defendant he had been seen accepting a box. Defendant immediately acknowledged that he had the box and that it contains narcotics. The officer then recovered a Mr. Coffee box containing 5 kilos of cocaine.
Defendant was arrested.
Defendant’s main issue on appeal was that since he was stopped for a lane infraction the officer unjustifiably prolonged the traffic stop when he failed to address the lane infraction and immediately started talking about the narcotics investigation.
This opinion upheld the conviction and made clear that the mere questioning of a driver with things unrelated to the traffic stop does not unreasonably prolong the traffic stop.
During this lawful seizure, to talk about the driver’s narcotics involvement the officer was not required to have a reasonable suspicion that he was involved.
These questions do not unreasonably prolong the duration of the stop.
Sometimes a traffic stop is just a traffic stop.
But police always gain new information as they engage with the driver and occupants of a car.
What they learn can lead to probable cause.
People v. Hilt – Small Pieces Of Plastic
People v. Hilt, 298 Ill.App.3d 121 (1998) helps track this point.
An officer and his partner were on duty around 3 am in an area known to be high in drug trafficking. Police noticed a car with improper registration plates. The officer who approached on the passenger side saw a knotted piece of a baggie on the car’s rear floorboard.
The officer knew that drug dealers often place product in a corner of a plastic bag, tie a knot, then tear off the rest of the bag. Upon seeing the plastic, the occupants were removed and the car was searched. In the glove box they found a crack pipe. The female passenger admitted it was hers and she was arrested.
The search resumed and a small rock-like substance on the passenger’s side of the car’s front floorboard was found.
The cases emphasize that an officer is allowed to take his or her own experience into account when interacting with drivers and passengers.
People v. Jones – One Hitter In His Pocket
To get back to the point we look at People v. Jones, 215 Ill.2d 261 (2005).
This defendant was driving a truck with his 11 year old son as a passenger. The tail lights were not operating and the truck was stopped. As the officer was talking to the driver his front shirt pocket opened. The officer saw a small wooden box.
The officer immediately recognized it as a “one-hitter” box. They are used to smoke and carry a small amount of cannabis. The officer inspected the box and managed to open it, revealing a small amount of cannabis and a pipe. The driver was asked to step out of the truck. As he was stepping out of the truck defendant’s right hand was pushing something between the seat cushions.
When the defendant was completely out the truck the officer saw the butt of a handgun protruding from the seat cushion. Defendant was handcuffed. The gun was retrieved. It was a .22 caliber revolver. Eventually, a small bag containing another loaded .289 caliber revolver with 22 additional bullets found inside.
Defendant challenged the search on the basis that the officer could not have known that the box contained any contraband and that it was a wild guess. The court said that the officer didn’t’ need to be sure with 100% accuracy that the box had cannabis. The officer had sufficient training to recognize “one-hitter” boxes.
Based on his training and experience, the officer deduced that defendant’s one-hitter box probably contained cannabis.
Police Can Also Rely On An Investigation Or On A Drug Dog For Probable Cause To Search A Car
People v. Heritsch – This Is What A Good Dog Sniff Looks Like
Let’s look at some dog sniff cases first. It’s no secret a positive drug dog alert will allow a warrantless search of a car. Modern drug dog cases turn on the length or duration of the traffic stop.
People v. Heritsch, 2017 IL App (2d) 151157 is what a good dog sniff looks like.
The car was stopped for crossing the fog ling. The officer began writing the citation when the dog and handler arrived. The dog got there pretty quickly and every minute of the interaction was documented and accounted for on the video and the call logs.
The court found that the officer was working at a normal pace and was not dragging his feet just to wait for the dog. The officer used less than a minute of time to call the dog and interact with the handler once he got there. The court concluded that the activities unrelated to the mission of the stop did not prolong the stop.
People v. Paddy – This Is What A Bad Dog Sniff Looks Like
People v. Paddy, 2017 IL App (2d) 160395 is a dog sniff looks like.
After stopping the Impala for following too closely, the sergeant approached the passenger-side window. There were three occupants and they all appeared to be rather nervous.
The female driver is asked to sit in the officer’s front seat in the squad car. After entering his squad car, the sergeant began preparing a written warning for following too closely. He also conducted a computer-records check, from which he learned that the Impala was registered in Minnesota.
As the sergeant was talking with the driver, he requested a K-9 handler, back him up. Although the sergeant had completed the written warning, he left it on the clipboard. The K-9 had yet to arrive. The sergeant then told the driver to wait in the squad car while he spoke to the passenger about an insurance card.
He exited the squad car and walked back to the front passenger window. This sergeant asked the passenger to look for an insurance card. This time he stood at the passenger window, he saw green flakes on the passenger’s face, chest, and pants. By this time the dog had arrived and alerted.
When the car was searched they found cannabis flakes near the handle of the front passenger door as well as a bullet in the map pocket of the door. A loaded handgun was found between the front passenger seat and the center console. A second loaded handgun under the driver’s seat was discovered as well as $8,000 in a purse, and a large amount of heroin in a backpack in the trunk were also located.
The reviewing court wasted no time in throwing out all the evidence.
The court said the mission of the traffic stop was complete when the sergeant finished the written warning. At that point, the warning should have been returned to the driver along with her license and she should have been released.
It is true that proof of insurance is within the normal scope of every traffic stop.
EXCEPT, the officer knew this was an out of state car.
Illinois law does not require proof of insurance for out of state plates, thus the sergeant mistakenly believed that he was authorized to return to the vehicle to ask for proof of insurance. See 625 ILCS 5/3-402(B)(2)(a), & 3-707).
That unjustified return to the vehicle unduly prolonged the traffic stop. The continued detention of the car and its passengers was not justified.
Read This Case Cautiously…It’s On Driver Nervousness
People v. Sadeq
I’m gonna tell you about People v. Sadeq, 2018 IL App (4th) 160105, but I’ll do it with caution.
The trooper observed a Ford Taurus traveling 75 mph in a 70 mph zone. The trooper initiated a traffic stop. The car came to a stop in the middle of the right lane, which immediately raised the trooper’s suspicion. In his experience, the vast majority of stops do not involve the car stopping in a lane of traffic.
Two men were in the car.
The Trooper thought they were extremely nervous right from the get-go. Their hands shook, they had rapid heartbeats viewed by the throbbing carotid artery and a “bouncing” stomach. The trooper also saw twitching eyes and a leg was bouncing up and down.
The men were told they were going to receive a warning, but this did not end their nervousness.
The trooper invited the driver into his squad where he learned they from Missouri but rented a car from the Chicago airport. He stuttered when they spoke and had a heavy accent. The trooper thought the long pausing and stuttering meant he was making up the answer on the spot. The man couldn’t explain where in Missouri they were coming from, he said they were at his cousin’s friend’s house.
The trooper learned the family business was a gas station with a grocery store. 11 minutes and 20 seconds into the stop backup arrives. The trooper said he didn’t believe the drivers story and he wanted to talk to the passenger again. He had completed the written warning and only needed the driver to sign it. Instead, the trooper returned to the Taurus and gave the passenger back his license and rental agreement.
He then asked many of the same questions he had asked the driver moments earlier. The trooper asked for permission to search the car and the passenger declined. That’s when the trooper told the men based on the way defendants were acting, he was going to have a drug dog come and sniff the car because he believed they were involved in criminal activity.
The trooper testified he requested the drug dog based on the following factors:
(1) defendants’ stopping their car in the middle of the right lane,
(2) defendants’ travel plan was conflicting and implausible in that it was highly unusual, and
(3) defendants remained extremely nervous despite being repeatedly told that they would receive just a warning.
When the dog arrived it alerted on the trunk. The trooper opened it and found 480 cartons of cigarettes.
The cigarettes had Missouri tax stamps, but no Illinois tax stamps. The men were arrested for the transportation of unstamped cigarettes. At the police station the driver admitted they had travelled to Missouri to purchase cigarettes and transport them for resale in Chicago without paying Illinois taxes.
The court held that the trooper was justified in further detention to allow the drug dog to get there. It may not have been probable cause for a search but it was reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot and a small delay was reasonable.
I list this case with a caution that not many other courts will give that much weight to a driver’s nervousness with nothing else. This was judge Steigmann from the 4th District who authorized this opinion. It is my guess that these facts in another court would come out different. See Smith discussed earlier where the court said that “nervousness alone is not a characteristic that generally invokes reasonable suspicion.”
People v. Duran – Police Set Up Surveillance Before The Stop
Like we said before, an active police investigation may reveal more facts about a car and its occupants. Notably there’s People v. Duran, 2016 IL App (1st) 152678.
Police get a tip that a specific women will be in Chicago, stay at a certain hotel, and will have drugs.
Police set up surveillance and confirm the women is staying at the hotel. They watch the hotel and see that she checks in. She is seen carrying a black attache bag. Later defendant and another women visit the first women at the hotel.
Defendant is seen walking out of the hotel room with the black attache bag. He gets in an Escalade driven by the second woman who was with him when they were at the hotel.
A patrol officer stops the Escalade for driving too fast for conditions. The women consents to a search. At that point, defendant is immediately removed from the vehicle and handcuffed. A dog comes to the scene and alerts specifically upon the black bag.
The reviewing court agreed that the tip and corresponding investigation gave the officers a reasonable articulable suspicion that the defendant was involved in criminal narcotics activity, justifying an investigative stop of the vehicle.
Police had probable cause to believe that defendant had done much more than just a traffic infraction.
Because this was always a drug investigation the five minutes it took for the drug dog to arrive on the scene and the time it took to complete the dog sniff did not exceed the bounds of reasonableness.
People v. Stroud
Recall the Salinas case?
The court never addressed whether the officers had sufficient reasonable suspicion or probable cause of the driver’s narcotics involvement. The traffic stop was good because it was based on a traffic infraction.
The court said that officer was free to talk about the narcotics investigation with the defendant. Sometimes police will have probable cause of drug activity before the stop even occurs.
That is what happened in People v. Stroud, 392 Ill. App. 3d 776 (2009).
This was an extensive drug investigation with an undercover, 106 recorded wiretaps, and 100’s of hours of police surveillance of numerous individuals over a period of 8 months. A purchase of two kilograms of cocaine was negotiated with defendant. A marked squad was assigned to stop the car and take the drugs then let defendant go. Indeed, the car was stopped, the driver removed, and upon entering the car police recovered a tote bag with 2 kilograms of cocaine.
The officers took the bag and allowed the defendant to drive away.
When defendant reacted by making a phone call it was recorded. In court the officer’s admitted they had no traffic reasons for stopping the red Corvette defendant was driving. Nonetheless, the officers knew the driver was the target of an extensive drug investigation and he was on his way to deliver 2 kilos of cocaine.
Defendant immediately got on his phone to report that a couple of officers had just ripped him off. Even though there was no traffic reason for the stop police, nonetheless, had probable cause that drugs were in the car.
U.S. v. Ross – Police Can Search Anywhere The Item Can Be
What do we mean when we say there is probable cause that there is evidence of a crime in car?
Implicitly, we mean the evidence can be anywhere in the car that the evidence can fit. To see what we mean we look at U.S. v. Ross, 456 798, 102 S.Ct. 2157 (1982).
A criminal informant told detectives a man known as “Bandit” was selling narcotics out of the trunk of his car, and he was about to re-up. Police found the car and identified defendant as the registered owner with alias “Bandit”.
The car was stopped, defendant removed, and officers found a bullet on the front seat. A search of the interior revealed a pistol in the glove box. In the trunk there was a brown paper bag.
Inside the bad there were other glassine bags containing a white power.
At this point, the bags were left there and the car was driven to headquarters. After a more thorough search place found in the trunk a zippered red leather pouch with $3,200 in cash. The power tested positive for heroin.
When the defendant challenged the full extent of the search the court held that that the scope of the warrantless search authorized by that exception is as broad as a search with a warrant would have been. If probable cause justifies the search of a lawfully stopped vehicle, it justifies the search of every part of the vehicle and its contents that may conceal the object of the search.
This is the reason why the odor of cannabis justifies the search of the entire interior of the car along with a search of all the occupants.
People v. Stout
We mentioned People v. Stout, 106 Ill.2d 77 (1985) earlier. It is the seminal smell of weed case in Illinois.
Officer sees an illegal turn and stops the car.
The driver got out of the car and met the officer between the cars. The officer went to check on the passengers and noticed the odor of burning cannabis through the open window coming out of the car. A subsequent search of defendant produced a vial of cocaine and codeine capsules.
The court said distinctive odors can be persuasive evidence of probable cause.
A police officer’s detection of controlled substances by their smell has been held to be a permissible method of establishing probable cause. Based on the officer’s experience and training in the detection of controlled substances it became likely that cannabis was being stored somewhere in that car.
Wyoming v. Houghton
We are deep enough to this material that you should be making connections with other cases. Remember Wyoming v. Houghton discussed in Volume I?
The presence of a hypodermic syringe in the pocket of the driver created probable cause to search the entire car including a purse found in the backseat. Doesn’t that also remind you of the search of the car in Jones from discussed in this Volume?
Jones had a “one-hitter” in his shirt pocket. Point is when there is probable cause to search for contraband in a car, it is reasonable for police officers to examine packages and containers in the car without a showing of individualized probable cause for each person and item.
Wyoming v. Houghton
Speaking of Wyoming v. Houghton, recall also that the hypodermic syringe needle in that case also justified a search of the passenger.
Wyoming Highway Patrol searched the entire car after the driver’s needle was discovered. Police searched a purse in the back seat that belonged to one of the female passengers. Inside the purse there was a brown pouch and a black wallet-type container with drug paraphernalia and a syringe with 60 ccs of methamphetamine.
The court said that it did not matter that the purse did not belong to the driver. It would make little sense to not allow officers to search the purse. When there is probable cause to search for contraband in a car, it is reasonable for police officers to examine packages and containers without a showing of individualized probable cause for each one.
A passenger’s personal belongings, just like the driver’s belongings or containers attached to the car like a glove compartment, are “in” the car, and the officer has probable cause to search for contraband in the car.
People v. Colyer
Recall also how in People v. Colyer, (also discussed in Volume I) police searched an entire car after initially seeing one single bullet. While talking to the driver in plain view in aplastic bag police saw a large pistol round about 3 inches long.
At that point the men were ordered out of the car. All the passengers were searched and additional ammunition was found in their pockets. Eventually, police removed a .454 revolver from the car.
The court said that that a reasonably cautious individual in a similar situation could reasonably suspect the presence of a gun somewhere in that car.
Can Police Move The Car To Conduct The Search?
Can police move the car to a police garage with better lighting and equipment?
Yes, for the most part.
Chambers v. Maroney
Chambers v. Maroney, 399 U.S. 42, 90 S.Ct. 1975 (1970) held that if there exists probable cause to search a car and its contents then that probable cause still exists at the station house when and if the car is moved there for processing.
A gas station was reported robbed by two men with guns. Cash and coins were taken. The attendant said he was directed to put all the coins in a right-hand glove which was then taken by the robbers.
Witnesses saw the men drive away in station wagon seen circling the gas station. There were 4 men in total in the station wagon. One of the robbers bad on a green sweater and the other had a trench coat. Within an hour police stopped a wagon 2 miles from the gas station. Defendant had a green sweater and there was a trench coat in the car.
The men were arrested and the car was driven to the station for processing. In a thorough search of the car police found a concealed compartment under the dashboard hiding two .38 caliber revolvers, a right hand glove containing change, and I.D. cards bearing the name of the gas station attendant from a different robbery.
Defendant challenged the search of the car on the basis that police moved to car to the police station rather than search the car on the roadside. The argument was that if the police had time to move the car then they certainly had time to go get a warrant.
Given probable cause to search exists, either course is reasonable under the fourth amendment.
People v. Contreras
People v. Contreras, 2014 IL App (1st) 131889 involved an extensive drug investigation.
A task force set up a deal with an undercover. When that seller was arrested he sat down, cooperated and gave it all up to police. He gave police his phones, the keys to his house, told them what he had and where he had it.
This cooperator told police his heroin was at his house that very moment. He said it was in a brown paper bag stored in a secret compartment in a gold Cadillac. The Cadillac belonged to the person who sold to him. Surveillance officers located the gold Cadillac at defendant’s house and saw two men get into it and drive away.
They had a brown paper bag when they got in. At one point an officer saw the driver turn his body right reaching into the backseat where he hid the bag. The driver and passenger did not have on seat belts. The car was then stopped by a marked unit. The men were removed and handcuffed. Detectives made the decision to move the car to a police station.
It was dark and they were in a busy area. The station was only 5 minutes away. At the station they had a dog sniff the car, and it alerted to the presence of contraband. Near the rear of the vehicle officer’s noticed a trap. Police had to circumvent the car’s electronics and managed to open it.
Inside there was a brown paper bag with heroin, there was additional cocaine, four firearms, and $21,0000 in cash. Police at no time had a warrant.
The court held that due to the informant’s information and the police extensive investigation corroborating the information they had ample probable cause to believe the gold Cadillac had contraband inside of it. No warrant was necessary to search the gold Cadillac while it was on the street after the officers stopped it for a minor traffic violation.
Moreover, the warrantless search would properly have comprised not only the vehicle itself, but any interior compartment. Probable cause supporting a warrantless search when a vehicle is stopped does not vanish after it has been impounded and is in police custody.
People v. Parker
People v. Parker, 354 Ill. App. 3d 40 (2004) involves another vehicle that was stopped and moved. This time a minivan was curbed because the front license plate was missing and its headlights we not on even though it was dusk.
When the officer glanced inside the minivan he noticed a panel on the dashboard move from an open to a closed position. The officer believed what he saw was a secret compartment hidden in the dashboard.
He also noticed two grocery-size plastic bags containing a large amount of currency sitting on the floor of the vehicle between the driver and the passenger seats. The driver was removed and arrested for having a secret compartment. (Note: there is no longer a law prohibiting a secret compartment.)
A search of his person revealed a small bag of cannabis.
The men were arrested and the minivan was transported to the police station. An expert on secret compartments examined the minivan and was able to open it. He pulled out a 9-mm handgun and four kilograms of cocaine hidden in a separate compartment in the rear of the minivan.
The court said the police had probable cause to conduct a warrantless search of the minivan. This was based on the officer’s observation of the closing panel, the recovery of illegal drugs from defendant’s person, the observation of two grocery-size plastic bags each containing large amounts of loose currency ($29,477), and defendant’s implausible claim that he did not know who owned the money.
The court found no error in moving the van to the station. Once officers obtain probable cause to conduct a warrantless search of a vehicle, the fact that the officers delay in searching the vehicle until it is removed to a police station does not diminish the justification for the search.
People v. Varnauskas
People v. Varnauskas, 2018 IL App (3d) 150654 (July) discusses how 2 kilos of heroin and 1 kilo of cocaine were found under defendant’s hood. Defendant was stopped because his rear license plate was obscured by an empty bicycle rack attached to the car.
The straps were hanging down so low that the license plate was obstructed and only two digits of the license plate could be read. During the traffic stop a drug dog alerted to the presence of drugs in defendant’s vehicle.
The trooper asked defendant to sit in the front passenger seat of his squad car so he could speak with defendant. The officer discovered that the car was rented and due to be returned in Los Angeles. Defendant was not on the rental agreement and indicated he was coming from Colorado. He said he had flown into Los Angeles and was traveling via the car to see his mother in Connecticut.
Defendant was unclear and uncertain about his other travel plans. A second trooper arrived and continued to fill out the warning ticket while the initial trooper walked his canine partner around defendant’s vehicle. The dog alerted.
Police searched the car for 20 minutes on the side of the road and didn’t find anything. Due to the weather being below freezing, safety issues regarding heavy traffic and low visibility because it was dark outside the troopers decided to relocate defendant’s vehicle to a nearby police station in order to continue the search.
After searching for 10 or 15 minutes, they found the drugs under the hood in the engine compartment in an area covered by a black piece of metal or plastic. They were wrapped in black material and inserted in a void area by the engine and below the car’s windshield. In the street, police could not see the packages of narcotics in the void compartment because a flat piece of dark metal was covering it obscuring it from flashlights.
At the station that piece of metal could easily be removed by removing some clips. The court held that even though an exhaustive search had been conducted at the roadside the probable cause did not dissipate when the troopers decided to relocate the vehicle. The troopers had probable cause to search the vehicle without a warrant based on the canine’s alert and the officer’s drug interdiction experience. The search of this car at the station was supported and upheld by the court.
People v. Pulido
People v. Pulido, 2017 IL App (3d) 150215 should be known by an officer operating out of the 3rd Appellate district. The 3rd District splits with itself on allowing a car to be moved. In Pulido, the defendant was under investigation by a narcotics unit.
A trooper was asked to stop the car. Investigators had set up a deal, but rather than go through with it they wanted the car stopped on it’s way to the buy. A trooper stops the car for speeding. A K-9 unit arrived at the scene while the stop was ongoing, and alerted to narcotics. The car was searched but no drugs were found during the first search and the vehicle was moved due to rain and safety issues.
Eventually, at the police station investigators found tubes wrapped with black tape in the vehicle’s air filter. Inside the tubes was methamphetamines. The court held that even though police initially had probable cause to search the car. That probable cause dissipated after the officers’ initial 15 minute hand search of the vehicle did not reveal any evidence of narcotics or any evidence of a hidden compartment within the vehicle.
this time the court said it was improper to transport defendant’s vehicle to the police department for a second search. The court said by that point the probable cause had dissipated. The court held that an investigative stop must cease once reasonable suspicion or probable cause dissipates.
The court noted that when the initial search of the vehicle on I-80 was fruitless, any probable cause dissipated and the officers no longer had any authority to continue their search. Since the troopes failed to produce any evidence that they observed any indication that the vehicle may have had a hidden compartment or failed to produce any other probable cause they had no justification to move the car. For now the 3rd District alone in this ruling.
The finding here is different from the Smith case discussed earlier involving the purse with pills. A positive drug alert did provide probable cause. But the court is saying that probable cause ended when authorities did not find anything. The court said in the Smith case that when the officer found out the purse did have crack cocaine like he suspected that revealed that there was never any probable cause in the first place and the officer should have immediately ceased the search of the purse.
What happens if there is only probable cause for a particular container inside a car?
You can do a limited search of the item known to contain contraband.
When lawyers get involved the simple becomes complicated. We’ll finish off Volume II with a discussion of containers with contraband put in cars.
California v. Acevedo
California v. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565, 111 S.Ct. 1982 (1991) is such a case. This is another example of an extensive police investigation that comes to bear all before a car is stopped.
A drug investigation began after Federal Express intercepted a package with massive amounts of cannabis. Police allowed the recipient to pick up the package and take it home to an apartment. Surveillance was set up and another man was seen leaving the apartment with package.
That man was stopped and police confirmed he had around 1 1/2 pounds of cannabis in the package. Later, defendant arrived at the apartment and left left carrying a brown paper bag that looked full. The bag was consistent with the rest of the contents intercepted by Federal Express.
Defendant placed the bag in the trunk of his car and started to drive away. The car was stopped. and the bag with marijuana was found in the trunk. Ordinarly, the car and every container in the car could be searched. However, in other cases courts recognized a possible incongruity in the law.
If the man had walked away with the bag rather than place it in a car and drive away the law would not have allowed a warrantless search. Authorities would have needed a warrant to stop the man and look in the bag. But because the man put the bag in a car and drove away. The automobile exception to the warrant requirement allowed the authorities to stop the car and search it including a search of the bag.
The Supreme Court recognized there has been some confusing and inconsistent rulings dealing with containers and automobiles. The court held that the police did not need a warrant to open the bag to check it for cannabis. However, the police did not have authority to search the rest of the car.
The court said there is no further point in continuing to distinguish between a container for which the police are specifically searching and a contier which they come across in a car. Conflicting court opinions have provided only minimal protection for privacy and has impeded effective law enforcement.
The court reminded us that the scope of a warrantless search of an automobile is not defined by the nature of the container in which the contraband is secreted. Rather, it is defined by the object of the search and the places in which there is probable cause to believe that it may be found.
Probable cause to believe that a container placed in the trunk of a taxi contains contraband or evidence does not justify a search of the entire cab. In this case, police had probable cause to believe that the paper bag in the automobile’s trunk contained marijuana. That probable cause allows a warrantless search of the paper bag. The rule has been and still is that police may search an automobile and the containers within it where they have probable cause to believe contraband or evidence is contained.
People v. Davis
The last case for the day is People v. Davis, 2019 IL App (1st) 160408. Defendant had the great misfortune of going to a drug deal with a guy under federal investigation.
Police saw he had possession of a white bag and they stopped his car and immediately searched it. In a hidden compartment in the back by the armrest they found a kilogram of cocaine.
The compartment also had three semiautomatic guns and an electronic scale. In another panel on the rear passenger side there was a green bag containing a 9-millimeter and .45-caliber rounds of ammunition.
What we know for sure is that the officers saw a white package enter the car without ever seeing anyone remove it. The package was produced by an individual under a long-running investigation. Officers had engaged in at least five or six transactions with the target. And the target was seen giving defendant a white packaged that he definitely put in the Honda. Police had probable cause to believe the Honda now had narcotics in it.
Certainly, police new little to nothing about was the car defendant showed up, knew nothing about him, and knew nothing about the other occupants in his car. Nonetheless, officers searched defendant’s Honda without having first hand information that the car had a secret compartment.
Additionally, the orientation of the vehicles during the transaction added to the suspicion. When the target opened his door, he would block the view of the space between the cars from one direction; when the Honda opened its door, it blocked the view of the space between the cars.
The court finally held it was reasonable for the trained narcotic investigators to believe the Honda had a secret compartment hiding the white package. It was entirely reasonable for the officers to stop the Honda and to search it thoroughly until the white package was found.
Rule of Thumb: Under the vehicle exception, the search only extends to areas for which probable cause exists and places where the object of the search is capable of being located.