PA Expands Vehicle Search Rules

Police search and seizureOn April 29, 2014, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided the case of Commonwealth v. Gary, holding that police officers do not need a search warrant to search a vehicle, as long as they have probable cause to believe that they will find evidence of a crime inside. The decision is based on the idea that a person’s right to privacy is diminished when they are in their car or truck (as opposed to their home), and that the inherent mobility of a motor vehicle presents an “exigent circumstance” which makes it impractical or impossible for police to obtain a search warrant prior to searching a vehicle.

Although the Gary decision brings Pennsylvania into line with the federal courts and the courts of most of other states (all of which permit the warrantless search of a motor vehicle), it represents an abrupt shift in the way that Pennsylvania approaches searches and seizures. Until this decision, longstanding legal precedent had held that the Pennsylvania Constitution, Article I, Section 8, provided greater protection from unreasonable searches and seizures than the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Pennsylvania courts had consistently held that our state’s constitution required police officers to obtain a search warrant prior to searching a motor vehicle, unless certain limited exceptions applied, even though the federal Constitution did not.

It is important to note that the Gary decision does NOT mean that police can search a vehicle for any reason at all, or at any time, or for any purpose – probable cause is still required. However, this decision places the determination of probable cause entirely in the hands of the police. They no longer have to convince an independent magistrate that probable cause exists before acting.

Does this decision represent an erosion of civil liberty, or an advancement of law enforcement’s ability to fight crime? Will this new power be abused to conduct searches that previously would have been denied by a judge? Or do we trust law enforcement to police itself and stay within the bounds of the law without judicial oversight?

If you are facing criminal charges as the result of a search of your vehicle, call our offices today to speak to an experienced attorney who is up to date on the latest changes in the law.

Posted on December 29, 2014, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on PA Expands Vehicle Search Rules.

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