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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.

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 psychedelic mushrooms 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.

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.

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