Distinguishing Between “Reasonable Suspicion” and “Probable Cause” in Justifying Drug Searches

Fourth Amendment, your rights, search and seizure, drug crimes, Illinois criminal attorneyAlthough the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution requires police to obtain a warrant based on “probable cause” before searching a person’s property, the Supreme Court has long recognized a lower standard of proof when it comes to police stops of vehicles. In these cases, police may search a person’s car or other vehicle based on “reasonable suspicion” of “possible criminal behavior.” A court must examine the “totality of the circumstances” in determining whether a police officer’s suspicion is reasonable.

Recent Case in Illinois

An Illinois appeals court panel recently reversed a trial court’s decision to suppress evidence from a traffic stop that uncovered evidence of illegal drug possession. The stop took place in March 2012. Police had information that a specific truck was likely involved in the transport of illegal drugs from the Mexican border to Chicago. The truck was spotted at a Chicago hotel. The driver, a woman, was on a Drug Enforcement Administration list of persons “involved in a narcotics trafficking organization.”

Police conducted surveillance of the woman at her hotel room. On the morning in question, she left the hotel in the truck along with her daughter and grandson. They traveled to a residence, where the woman removed a cooler from the truck and brought it into the house. She later returned to the truck with the cooler and drove off.

At this point, police stopped the truck after reportedly observing the grandson “dancing around inside the vehicle without his child restraint.” A police K-9 unit inspected the vehicle and alerted officers to the presence of drugs in the cooler. Police discovered cocaine and money hidden inside the cooler.

Although police justified the stop based on the child’s lack of restraint—a traffic violation—the trial judge concluded this was a pretense. The police really stopped the vehicle because they believed it contained illegal drugs. The judge then found there was insufficient evidence to show “probable cause” justifying the stop.

The appeals court disagreed. The trial court should have applied the lower “reasonable suspicion” standard instead of “probable cause.” And taking into account all of the facts surrounding the stop—i.e., the police surveillance, the woman’s presence on the DEA list, the fact she paid cash for her hotel room—the police more than had “reasonable suspicion” she was engaged in illegal activity.

Protecting Your Rights

Cases like these emphasize the importance of working with an experienced Illinois criminal defense attorney. Drug cases often turn on complex questions involving the legality of a police search. If you or someone you know faces any type of criminal charge, it is essential you have someone defending your interests. Contact the Law Offices of Hal M. Garfinkel LLC, Chicago Criminal Defense Attorney today if you have any questions.

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