When is There Probable Cause to Search a Vehicle in Pennsylvania?
Vehicle Search and Seizure Laws in Pennsylvania
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently restricted the police’s ability to search your vehicle unless they have a very good reason. The court’s 55-page decision boils down to when officers can and cannot search a car without a search warrant. Since a vehicle search can be a critical factor in any charges you or a loved one may be facing, our Pittsburgh defense lawyers have examined the decision and broken down how it applies.
If you or a loved one are charged with a crime in or around Pittsburgh after a vehicle search, contact Worgul, Sarna & Ness, Criminal Defense Attorneys, LLC at (412) 281-2146 for a free, confidential consultation.
Can Police Search Your Vehicle Without a Warrant in Pennsylvania?
Keith Alexander was the defendant in the case in question. Essentially, the Philadelphia Police pulled him over, and two officers smelled marijuana.
Alexander was arrested, put in the patrol car, and his vehicle was searched. Police found a locked metal box and opened it with a key on Alexander’s keychain. Inside were enough bundles of heroin to charge him with possession with intent to deliver.
During the case, his lawyer tried to prevent prosecutors from using the heroin as evidence because officers didn’t have the authority to open the container without a search warrant. The trial court disagreed, and Alexander was found guilty. Then, he appealed, and the state’s highest court heard the case.
What the Law Says About Warrantless Searches in PA
The US Constitution’s goal is to set out our rights in broad terms. The State of Pennsylvania also has its own Constitution.
The issue in Alexander’s case was whether the Pennsylvania Constitution provides more privacy protection than the federal Constitution. If so, they had to explain how that works in a case involving searching a vehicle.
The Philadelphia Police complied with the US Constitution when it unlocked the box. It also appeared to follow the ruling in Commonwealth v. Gary. In this 2014 case, the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court stated that Pennsylvanians don’t have greater privacy protections than in the US Constitution when police search vehicles.
Alexander Changed Everything
However, in the Alexander decision, the State Supreme Court decided that the Pennsylvania Constitution does provide us with more protections against our belongings being searched – like a locked box in a car – than the federal Constitution.
The court ruled that the 2014 Gary case didn’t address this issue. As a result, Pennsylvania is going back to how courts addressed this issue before the Gary decision.
Probable Cause: Warrants & Exigent Circumstances
Under the federal Constitution, police can search a car if there’s probable cause. Under Alexander, there must be probable cause, and in a case where there’s a locked container, because of Pennsylvania’s greater privacy protections, there must be:
- A search warrant
- Exigent circumstances
The State Supreme Court sent the Alexander case back to the trial court to see if exigent circumstances justified the officers opening the box.
How Vehicle Search and Seizure Laws Might Affect You
Under Alexander, Pennsylvania Police must take the time and effort to obtain a search warrant if there are no exigent circumstances. When officers perform a search without a warrant, and there is no emergency, a defense attorney could keep the evidence from being used. Ultimately, a judge would need to decide if the officer acted correctly, but this added protection benefits the individual.
The court in Alexander’s case admitted the decision wouldn’t help the police. The state argued changing the search rules would make their job more challenging:
“This presumes that we are free to ignore the Pennsylvania Constitution simply because it makes law enforcement more difficult, or, worse, that we are to determine the law based on what we think is good for law and order in society. We are not a policy branch, and we cannot ignore constitutional commands even if they make the work of police or prosecutors harder.”
Get Help From a Pittsburgh Criminal Defense Attorney
Disputes over what’s admissible in a vehicle search are common in criminal cases. Despite the recent decision, these issues are highly technical and based on the unique factors involved. Allowing or excluding evidence can be the difference between dismissed charges or a conviction.
If you or a loved one face charges after a vehicle search in or around Pittsburgh, reach out to Worgul, Sarna & Ness right away. We have an excellent track record in arguing motions to limit or exclude evidence from improper searches. Let us review the situation and explain your options.
Call (412) 281-2146 today for a free and confidential consultation.