Warrantless Searches of Vehicles OK in Pennsylvania
While police need a warrant to search a home based on probable cause in Pennsylvania, a judge’s signature is not necessary for a search of a car anymore. A Pennsylvania Supreme Court Ruling last April determined that law enforcement in PA have the right to search your car simply by fulfilling the requirements of probable cause, without having this validated by a judge. This law currently exists in 41 states and is upheld at the federal level.
Known as the “automobile exception” established by the U.S. Supreme Court, this policy had previously been curtailed in the state of Pennsylvania. Judges rejected this departure from federal law, calling the policy “fractured jurisprudence.” In their ruling, the PA Supreme Court embraced a policy based on “the federal automobile exception [to the Fourth Amendment], which requires only a finding of probable cause, and no exigency beyond the inherent mobility of a motor vehicle, to support a warrantless vehicle search.” While this divided decision could be later overturned, drivers should be aware that PA police now have the right to decide for themselves if they have probable cause to search your car.
What Is Considered Probable Cause to Search a Vehicle?
Although police may not need a warrant to search your car, they still must have probable cause for a search. At a routine traffic stop, the most common reason for probable cause is the sight of contraband (such as drugs, a weapon, even marijuana smoke or ashes) in plain view. By extension, the smell of drugs or alcohol could be considered probable cause that a crime has been committed. Similarly, if you give answers during the officer’s questions that indicate that you may have committed a crime, you may give law enforcement probable cause. Even if an officer sees you reach under your seat or into a compartment to hide something unidentified, you may provide probable cause.
A rarer example of probable cause would be if a vehicle and driver matching your description was seen committing a crime or fleeing the scene of a crime, but this can only be upheld in certain circumstances. Minor traffic offenses, such as speeding or having a broken taillight are not considered probable cause for a search, so you should not be forced to allow a search for these reasons. Just remember, though, that once you consent to a search that you have given up your Fourth Amendment protection against searches and seizures. If you directly give an officer permission to search your vehicle or tacitly approve of a search, anything found is admissible in court.
Because you never know what an officer may find in a search of your vehicle, we always advise our clients to make use of their Fourth Amendment rights and politely decline any requested searches. Sometimes, though, a search is done regardless. If the police have found anything in a search that may be used against you in court or that led to your arrest, you will need an experienced Pittsburgh criminal defense lawyer. Call Worgul, Sarna & Ness, Criminal Defense Attorneys, LLC at (412) 281-2146 to find out how we can help.