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When Do Police Have Probable Cause to Search Your Car?

Everyone knows that police officers need a warrant to enter and search your home, but do the same laws apply to vehicles?  When are police allowed to search your car?  What counts as probable cause?  Our Pennsylvania criminal defense lawyers explore the answers — and a controversial new law that expands police authority to conduct  warrantless vehicle searches.

Driving - When Do Police Have Probable Cause to Search Your Car?

What is Probable Cause?

Traffic stops do not follow the same laws as property searches.  While police must obtain a warrant in order to enter your home, your car is a different matter.  The area surrounding your car is not the privacy of your home; it’s a public road, and as a result, the expectation of privacy is diminished.  However, while a warrant is not necessary, police do still need to have probable cause to perform a search.  So what does that mean?

Probable cause does not include routine traffic stops.  Even if a police officer pulls you over because you have a broken tail light or an expired registration, that is not considered grounds to then dig through your trunk or into your dashboard.

Of course, not every traffic stop is routine.  If an officer can clearly smell or see contraband, such as marijuana or an illegal firearm, that officer has probable cause because he or she has reasonable grounds to believe a crime is being committed based on evidence of drug possession or weapons possession.  This is known as “plain view” or “plain smell.”

In summation, a mere hunch or whim is not probable grounds, and random, arbitrary searches are illegal under federal law.  There must be some form of evidence apparent to the officer making the stop.

Furthermore, probable cause is not the only grounds for a warrantless vehicle search. Know that police may also search your vehicle without a warrant if you give the officer consent, or if you are being placed under arrest for a related crime, such as drug possession.

Traffic Violation - When Do Police Have Probable Cause to Search Your Car?

Can Police Perform a Vehicle Search Without a Warrant?

Pennsylvania residents formerly enjoyed greater legal protections than residents of many other states.  While the Fourth Amendment holds that probable cause must be in place before officers can perform a warrantless vehicle search (unless the officer has other permissible justifications as noted above, such as getting consent from the person being searched), Pennsylvania law used to layer on the added provision that suspected evidence must be in danger of being lost or destroyed if an immediate search wasn’t performed.

However, in light of a recent Supreme Court ruling, that extra protection no longer applies. In May of 2014, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s controversial 4-2 decision in Commonwealth v. Gary stripped away the former need for exigent (i.e. urgent) circumstances.  Now, Pennsylvania police have the authority to perform warrantless searches even if the evidence is not in immediate danger of being lost or destroyed.

This ruling has major implications for criminal defendants, and indeed, all drivers sharing Pennsylvania’s roadways.

“The district attorneys offices will say this is about drugs and guns, and that is true,” begins attorney James Funt, “but it does not end there.  Whatever is in the car can be searched.  It’s a slippery slope.  Where does it stop? It doesn’t.  It will not end with guns and drugs.”

Funt is not alone in his concerns.

“I think getting a warrant is significant because it is one more deterrent against bad police behavior,” says Reggie Shuford, the executive director of the Pennsylvania ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union).  Shuford adds, “There was really no reason for the court to overturn the law.  We have a long history of strong protections for individual rights in Pennsylvania.”

Several of the judges themselves have also expressed negative opinions about the ruling. In a dissenting opinion that echoed Shuford’s comments, Justice Debra McCloskey Todd wrote that the decision was guilty of “eviscerating” traditional legal protections.  Justice Todd further elaborated, “By doing so, our Court heedlessly contravenes over 225 years of unyielding protection against unreasonable search and seizure which our people have enjoyed as their birthright.”

“Be wary of what you put in you pocket or what you put in your car,” cautions Funt ominously.  “You no longer have any safeguard from the government coming into your car.  Their right to intrude has exponentially increased.”

Pennsylvania Criminal Defense Lawyers Offering Free Consultations

If you or someone you love has been charged with a crime, or if you feel your Constitutional rights have been violated by police officers, the Pennsylvania experienced criminal defense attorneys of Young, Marr & Associates can help.  We offer free initial consultations, so call our law offices right away at (800) 819-5986 to speak about your situation.



icon car - Criminal Defense

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Commonwealth v. "H" (DUI case)

Client was charged with three separate DUI cases calling for mandatory minimum imprisonment of 90 days on each case. Client was advised to seek immediate intensive alcohol counseling. Client was sentenced to 1 year of house arrest after serving 3 days in the county prison.


Commonwealth v. "C" (Felony drug/Firearms case)

Client was charged with felony Delivery of drugs and illegal gun possession and was facing a mandatory 3-6 year prison sentence in the State prison system. Client was sentenced to one year of house arrest.


Commonwealth v. "S"

Client was charged with simple assault, domestic. After a hearing where evidence and testimony was presented, the entire case was dismissed by Judge Leonard Brown.


State of New Jersey v. "H"

Charges for young man charged with second degree aggravated assault were downgraded to third degree and he was accepted into the County Pretrial Intervention program with charges to be dismissed and record expunged after one year of misconduct free behavior.


We have decades of experience dealing with local police departments, prosecutors, and judges throughout southeastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Anyone facing charges involving a criminal offense can expect to experience a heightened degree of emotional turmoil, for themselves, as well as their family members. Our team of highly qualified criminal law attorneys and expert legal support staff are committed to providing each of our client’s with the compassion and understanding they deserve, as well as an aggressive plan for representation at an affordable price.

As former prosecutors, we have a balanced and in-depth understanding of the criminal justice system and how the prosecution prepares cases. In addition, we have long-standing experience dealing with local police departments, prosecutors and judges throughout southeastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

At Young, Marr and Associates, when we say “experience matters,” we mean it. Our lawyers, which include two former prosecutors and a former senior deputy district attorney bring more than three decades of criminal law experience, handling more than 10,000 criminal cases. It is precisely that experience that allows us to achieve outstanding results for our clients facing DUI, traffic, felony and misdemeanor charges in state, federal and juvenile courts.