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PA Supreme Court Redefines Vehicle Search Exception

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects people from being subjected to unreasonable searches of their persons and possessions unless police first obtain a warrant. However, federal court precedent has long recognized an exception for vehicles and has permitted warrantless searches as long as they were supported by probable cause. The Pennsylvania Constitution provided even more stringent rules than the U.S. Supreme Court, requiring that warrantless searches be permitted only when specific reasons make obtaining a warrant not practical or possible — called exigent circumstances.

In April of 2014, however, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court made a major change and determined that exigent circumstances, beyond the mobility of the vehicle itself, are no longer required to conduct a warrantless search of a vehicle. The case, Commonwealth v. Gary, involved a vehicle stop in which police conducted a search of a vehicle based on the strong odor of marijuana. The defendant asked the court to suppress the results of the search due to a lack of exigent circumstances. The Philadelphia municipal court refused and the Court of Common Pleas affirmed, finding that exigent circumstances were present. The Superior Court reversed, finding that the search had not been adequately justified.

While the courts below had differed only on whether exigent circumstances were present, a divided PA Supreme Court altered the law completely by concluding that the mobile nature of the vehicle, coupled with probable cause, was sufficient to justify the search:

  • Article I, Section 8 of the PA Constitution has long been interpreted as congruent with the Fourth Amendment.
  • The majority of states follow the federal rule regarding the warrantless search of vehicles.
  • No unique consideration in Pennsylvania justifies a divergence from the federal rule.
  • The requirement of probable cause provides adequate protection by itself.

Many criminal charges, especially those involving drugs, ultimately begin with the search of a vehicle. An experienced Berks County defense attorney knows the state of the law and can determine if your rights were violated.

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