A recent decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has expanded the ability of law enforcement officers to search motor vehicles without obtaining a search warrant. The Court’s decision adopts the Federal Automobile Exception Rule to the search warrant requirement. In the case of the Commonwealth v. Gary, 26 EAP 2012, the Court adopted an exception to the requirement for a search warrant to conduct a search of a motor vehicle which allows police officers who have probable cause to search a motor vehicle without a search warrant even where there are no exigent circumstances to justify the search. In the past, the Court had ruled that the Pennsylvania State Constitution permits warrantless searches of vehicles only when both probable cause and exigent circumstances are present.
The Supreme Court changed the rule and held that the law governing warrantless searches of motor vehicles is coextensive with federal law under the Fourth Amendment. The prerequisite for a warrantless search of a motor vehicle is probable cause to search; no exigency beyond the inherent mobility of a motor vehicle is required for a warrantless search. The Court ruled that the requirement that there be probable cause for a warrantless search is a strong and sufficient safeguard against illegal searches of motor vehicles. The inherent mobility of motor vehicles and the endless number of factual circumstances for such mobility constitutes a per se exigency allowing police officers to make the determination of whether probable cause for a search exists in the first instance in the field and then to conduct a warrantless search. This ruling eliminates the prior more stringent requirement that in addition to probable cause there was a need to show exigent circumstances to justify the warrantless search. This more stringent standard had previously been required under Article 1, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. This is a significant change in the rule and expands the authority of law enforcement officers to search a motor vehicle which has been legitimately stopped.
In Gary, two Philadelphia Police Officers stopped the Gary vehicle because they suspected that the tinted windows on that vehicle were in violation of the State Motor Vehicle Code. When they approached the vehicle, the police officers contend that there was a smell of marijuana coming from the passenger and driver side doors of the vehicle. They then apprehended Gary and without obtaining a search warrant had a canine unit come to search his vehicle. During the course of that examination two pounds of marijuana were discovered and Gary was charged with possession of a controlled substance. In changing the rule, the Court approved the warrantless search by the dog and held the resulting evidence was admissible.
Some commentators have stated that this decision is a large step away from Pennsylvania’s long held commitment to preserving its citizens’ right to privacy beyond the protections accorded by both the United States Constitution and the Pennsylvania Constitution while other commentators have stated that this change means that law enforcement officers no longer need a search warrant to search vehicles if there is probable cause that the motor vehicle is carrying contraband of any kind.
Attorney Chester C. Corse, Jr. is a Senior Partner at Williamson, Friedberg & Jones, LLC, primarily practicing in civil matters including trials for personal injury and property damage, divorce, custody and support, municipal representation and zoning. He primarily works out of the law firm’s Pottsville Office.