Lawmakers consider banning vehicle searches based on cannabis odor

By Nika Schoonover Capitol News Illinois

Senate Bill 125 would ensure that the smell of “burnt or raw cannabis in a motor vehicle” cannot alone be probable cause for an individual’s vehicle to be searched.

SPRINGFIELD – Just before lawmakers went on a two-week spring break, the Illinois Senate passed two bills that would work to further decriminalize cannabis use in Illinois.

The bills – Senate Bill 125 and Senate Bill 1886 – would prevent an individual’s vehicle from being searched solely based on the smell of cannabis and would allow some individuals on probation to consume cannabis or alcohol.

When Illinois legalized cannabis in 2020, it also made individuals previously charged with minor cannabis offenses eligible to have their records expunged. At the end of 2020, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced 492,129 cannabis-related convictions had been expunged and 9,219 people with low-level cannabis convictions had been pardoned.

“It was incredibly important as we were looking to legalize this product that has clearly demonized so many communities,” Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria, said of the legalization law at a Tuesday news conference.

Both bills will still need approval in the House and a signature from the governor to become law.

Cannabis odor in motor vehicles

SB 125 would ensure that the smell of “burnt or raw cannabis in a motor vehicle” cannot alone be probable cause for an individual’s vehicle to be searched.

“People – especially people of color – are unnecessarily pulled over far too often,” Sen. Rachel Ventura, a Democrat from Joliet and lead sponsor on the bill, said of the legislation during floor debate. “The odor of cannabis alone shouldn’t be one of those reasons (for their car to be searched). Cannabis is legal in Illinois and it’s a pungent scent that can stick to clothes for extended periods of time.”

State Sen. Rachel Ventura, D-Joliet, is pictured on the Senate floor last month. (Capitol News Illinois photo by Jerry Nowicki)

An amendment to the bill created an age exemption, specifying that individuals under the age of 21 are still eligible to have their vehicle searched solely based on odor.

After that provision was added, the ACLU of Illinois shifted from supporting the bill to having a neutral stance on it.

“We do have concerns that the amendment to the bill creates a workaround, or a loophole, that could have the effect of incentivizing police to target youth for unnecessary traffic stops or vehicle searches,” Atticus Ballesteros, an attorney with ACLU of Illinois, said in an interview.

Ballesteros added that ACLU of Illinois originally supported the bill because there are many reasons why a vehicle may smell of cannabis.

“And to us, that applies irrespective of age,” Ballesteros said.

The measure passed 33-20 in the Senate and awaits action in the House.

Substance use on probation

SB 1886 would bar courts from preventing individuals from using cannabis or alcohol if they’re on probation, conditional discharge or supervision.

The bill has several exemptions, though, including if the person is sentenced to a crime that involved “the presence of an intoxicating compound in the person’s body.”

Courts would also still be allowed to impose substance use restrictions if the person is under the age of 21 or if they are participating in “problem-solving court,” a system of courts designed to help people with mental health and substance abuse problems.

The measure passed with a 34-21 vote and will head to the House.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide, as well as hundreds of radio and TV stations. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.