Answer a teen's Q. about Unreasonable Search and Seizure

So I was riding in the car with The Cat Who Walks Alone, who will be 17 next month (she was driving). And she asked me if it was true that cops in Illinois can pull you over if they see that you don’t have your seatbelt on. And I said, “Yes, as I understand it, they can, plus they can pull you over if they see that you don’t have your kids restrained in proper child safety seats.” I told her that as I understand it, if they pull you over for a seatbelt violation, and they see that you’ve got, say, a gun on the seat next to you, or open liquor, they can bust you for that, as well as the seatbelts.

Then, she said that her history teacher told her this spring that the law against “unreasonable search and seizure” means that if they come into your house with a warrant, looking for something, and they find something else illegal, like marijuana plants growing in your basement, or a baggie of crack cocaine, that they can’t bust you for the “other” thing, only the thing they were looking for. I said, “Well, if they come in and find evidence of a crime, they can hardly just look the other way. It depends on what it is exactly that they see. If they see dismembered body parts while they’re looking for a meth lab, they’re hardly going to throw up their hands and say, ‘No can do, it ain’t mentioned in the warrant’. But cops and district attorneys vary in how hot they are to bust people for things like marijuana growing in the basement. So, it depends.”

But she was pretty sure that her history teacher had told them, “Nope, the cops aren’t allowed to bust you for the Other Thing at all,”, and that that would include not being able to bust you for, say, open liquor after being pulled over for seatbelts.

So, would someone like to clarify all this? I am embarrassed to admit that I don’t know, exactly.

the warrant must specify what they’re searching for. If in the process of searching for that, they spot something else in plain view (or in a reasonable place to look for the specified item) they can take it, is my understanding.

So, if they’re looking for a person, they shouldn’t be looking in your desk drawers, however, if they’re looking for cash, and they spot the fugitive hiding in your closet, they can use it.

At very worst, they can secure the scene and get antoher warrant (IF again, it was in ‘plain sight’ - ie, no desk drawers when the item you’re looking for is bigger than that)

forgot to add usual disclaimers about IANAL and YMMV (since different jurisidictions etc, different judges may or may not allow stuff to come into evidence etc.). and when in doubt, check with a lawyer in your jurisdiction.

My impression always was the opposite, that the police could NOT pull you over simply because they thought you weren’t wearing a seat belt. I always thought that they could pull you over for an actual moving violation, e.g., speeding, swerving, and if you weren’t wearing your seat belt, they could add that to the original charge (or ignore the original charge and only get you for speeding). But to my knowledge, they can’t pull you over just because you don’t have the seat belt on; there has to be a primary charge.

dantheman different jurisdictions - in MI now, (just came into play), seat belt violations are now an acceptable primary reason to stop a vehicle.

I bow to you on that - but it’s not nationwide, so what I said might be relevant, somewhere. I grew up in NJ, and from what I know my “take” is valid there, if nowhere else.

I don’t know much about what applies to houses & search warrants, but I do recall reading up on the California Vehicle code (when I was a teenager and the police stole my drivers license out of a parked, unmanned car), although that was a while ago. I think is vehicles may be distinctly different from your house, so there may be separate answers to the question. The one thing I do remember is that a search of your car can be made if you are in the act or suspected to be in the act of committing a felony (so I’d assume if you just robbed a bank, the 20 kilos of crack in your trunk are fair game too, but this is probably intended to allow officers to confiscate weapons and perform the job of preventing felonies), or you are suspected of transporting contraband or certain quantaties of some other stuff, I don’t recall.

In actuality, the laws may have changed since then, but since ‘suspicion’ is basically up to the officer, you’re probably mostly unprotected if you get stopped. Your state may vary. Besides, I believe that if they get a warrant, search the house for evidence of one crime, find evidence of another, they may be entitled on the basis of that to get a warrant for the second crime.

“is vehicles” being mostly the same as ordinary vehicles, they’re just owned by the I.S. I think the same laws apply.

That’s the way it is here in Wisconsin at least. A seat belt is not a primary violation, it is secondary. They cannot pull you over for it, only ticket you ($10 here) after pulling you over for something else. Failing to restrain a child, however, IS a primary offense.

As for warrants, the “in plain sight” or “in due course of executing the warrant” applies. If they find something else, you can be arrested for it. Then it’s up to the lawyers to argue if the evidence is admissible or not.

Of course, IANAL. :slight_smile:

In the plain view doctrine, if the police, or FBI agent or whoever is somewhere they have a right to be, if they see something illegal, they can bust you for it and use it in a court of law. If a cop knocks on your door and asks you to come in and talk about something (eg. the dipwad who knifed your hammock to death… but I digress) and you allow him in, and he sees your roomie separating his dope on the table, your roomie is screwed. The cop had the right to be in your house (your invitation)

Wring is right on the warrant part. A warrant to search for pot would allow the cops to search any part of your house where pot could be hidden, including small areas. If they open the closet and find 57 sawed off shotguns, you’re in trouble. As for the seizure, as a practical matter, the police would probably secure the area and get a warrant to confiscate the guns. It’s cleaner at trial if nothing else.

There have actually been a lot of litigated cases as to where a cop has a right to be. For example, the cops were legally in a home talking to the residents without a warrant. One of them turned a stereo speaker and found some sort of contraband behind it. I don’t remember what the effect was.

Re: seatbelt violations, I believe in Illinois that it is now a primary offence meaning the police can stop you for just that offence. It is a matter of local procedure as to whether the police in Evanston will stop you for it, as opposed to the police in Skokie.

If you did get stopped for whatever legal reason, and the police saw an open container in your car, especially if the occupants were underage, the cop would certainly investigate further, and possibly bust you for that. He or she may just ask questions to see if the driver/passenger is freaking out/slurs words/screams about spiders crawling out of the A/C, etc.

That’ll be $250.00 for the consultation please. (wink)


I hate it when others do this because I like to have my answers in my post and not have to read a mile long post somewhere else.

Nevertheless I’m about to do it. In this post this topic has been covered. I provide the link to it since there is simply too much to summarize easily. FWIW the linked post is interesting if you like this topic so hopefully it won’t be too painful to muddle through.

Basically the answer to your question seems to be ‘It depends’. Some case law is contradictory on the points of search and seizure.

About the only thing you can take to the bank is the fact that your Fouth Amendment rights have been seriously eroded and this should concern most Americans.

Frankly I wouldn’t mind seeing this topic explored further so if there are still questions after reading the other post please ask them.

Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety – Benjamin Franklin

Check out FindLaw on the 4th Amendment for more information than the Cat could ever want, easily printed if she wants to go prove to her history teacher that he’s full of sh*t.

Just this morning there was a news report on the radio that a couple was stopped for a traffic violation and a drug sniffing K9 alerted the cops to the trunk, where they found pot. They beat the case by arguing that the dog’s track record was very poor in terms of actual drug finds so his alert was not probable cause to search their trunk.

This is some of the weirdness I was mentioning earlier. In the post I linked to above I wrote the following:

I did a brief web search and found this on Unreasonable Search and Seizure.

Of course IANDDG (Duck Duck Goose) :smiley:

Actually, I believe that NJ changed this a year or two ago, but I’m not sure.

I lived there last year, and I hadn’t heard of it changing, although I could have missed it.

A while back, the seatbelt thing was used against me, in a way. I was stopped for speeding (and really was speeding a little, too; in other words, I was legitimately pulled over). The officer took my license, registration, insurance and after checking out my record said he’d let me go but he’d write me up for a seat-belt violation. I was wearing my seatbelt, but I could see the point. I could either take an expensive moving-violation ticket (over $100) and the points that came along as baggage, or I could take the seatbelt ticket. I took the latter.

The officer was being nice; nonetheless, if I were you I’d go to court on the seat belt violation and plead not guilty, as you were not guilty of that violation. It’s not like the officer gave you a choice. He was going to write you a seat belt violation since you had a clean record and he was a nice guy. But you weren’t guilty of that, and he can’t write you a ticket for speeding ex post facto.

I didn’t have a clean record, actually. And I don’t think he was a nice guy, either. (BTW, it happened years ago - I’m not going to court for it.) No, he didn’t give me a choice; it’s a kind of bait-and-switch that happens more often than you might think. Now, when I say I was speeding, I was doing perhaps 3 MPH over the posted limit. This is illegal in the strictest sense of the word, but most people who fight tickets in court know that in a court a law you stand at least a decent chance of getting off unless you were doing, say, 15 MPH over the limit. But if it’s a close ticket, not a cut-and-dry case, and the officer realizes you might win IF you did fight, that’s why they do the switch - they want to get you on something so that you’re a little scared or intimidated by them. In other words, it’s like this: “You were going a little fast [officer makes up a number, say 10-15 over the limit]. But I’m gonna let you off with just a ticket for your seat belt.” Meaning that he’s doing you a “favor” because you don’t have to pay the outrageous traffic fines OR get points - even though, if you did get that kind of ticket, such charges might not even stick.

It’s pure intimidation in the guise of benevolence. New Jersey cops - not all of them, but many of the ones I’ve encountered personally - thrive on it. Even if you’re not guilty of anything (or of only minor offenses), they hold the upper hand and use it whenever they wish.

I have nothing against police officers. Some of my best friends are police officers. :slight_smile: . Nonetheless, one should not be intimidated by them. They’re doing their job, but if they are abusing their authority, you have to stand up and be ticketed - I mean, counted.