Landmark Ruling: Warrants Now Required to Search Vehicles in Pennsylvania Furthering the protection of individuals’ rights across the Commonwealth
Protection from unreasonable searches and seizures by law enforcement is a fundamental right afforded to individuals by the 4th Amendment of the United States Constitution. A similar but broader protection is provided at the state level pursuant to the Constitution of Pennsylvania Article 1, Section 8. In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania overturned long-held precedent which allowed for warrantless vehicle searches. The opinion issued on December 22, 2020 now holds that all law enforcement searches of a car, and items contained within it, require a warrant in Pennsylvania.
For decades, the federal automobile exception permitted warrantless searches of vehicles. Justifying these police actions was largely based on the impracticability of securing a warrant given the speed with which cars can be quickly moved outside the locality or jurisdiction. Additionally, Courts have relied on the notion that individuals have reduced expectations of privacy in their cars due to “the pervasive governmental regulation of, and local law enforcement’s extensive contact with, motor vehicles.”
In Commonwealth v. Alexander, No 30 EAP 2019, a Philadelphia police officer and his partner stopped a vehicle driven by Alexander at approximately 2:30 a.m. on May 11, 2016. The officers smelled marijuana, and when asked, the vehicle owner (Alexander) stated that he and his female passenger had just smoked marijuana. Officer Godfrey arrested Alexander and placed him in the patrol vehicle, while the passenger was removed from the car. The officers searched the interior for more marijuana but found only a metal box behind the driver’s seat. When opened using a key from Alexander’s keychain, they found it contained bundles of heroin.
The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania based its new decision requiring that a warrant must be obtained prior to a vehicle search on two (2) basic factors: 1) Law enforcement can now easily obtain permission to search entirely by telephone. 2) When exigent circumstances exist, such as if an individual is trying to destroy the drugs or evidence within the car, police may act without a search warrant. The burden is placed on the Commonwealth to show probable cause.
As the Pennsylvania Supreme Court stated, “We hold that Article 1, Section 8, affords greater protection to our citizens than the Fourth Amendment… The Pennsylvania Constitution requires both a showing of probable cause and exigent circumstances to justify the warrantless search of an automobile.”
Quoting Missouri v. McNeely, 569 US 141, 149 (2013), “Exigent circumstances are defined by a ‘compelling need for official action and no time to secure a warrant.'” Comm. v. Trahey, 228 A.3d 520, 537-38 (Pa. 2020). Even when probable cause suddenly develops after a traffic stop, as it did in Alexander, exigent circumstances usually are not present. Nothing prevents law enforcement from attempting to obtain a telephone warrant and it is highly unlikely for any potential evidence to disappear since the defendant is already out of the car and in custody.
At Neff & Sedacca, P.C., we are committed to providing strategically-sound, aggressive defense for our clients. If you have been accused of a crime or have questions regarding your rights in criminal legal matters, you should seek experienced legal counsel. To schedule a confidential consultation with the attorneys at Neff & Sedacca, P.C., contact the firm by phone at 215-563-9800 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.