The PA Superior Court recently decided the case of Commonwealth v. Runyan, No. 1498 WDA 2016 (April 20, 2016)holding that if police possess probable cause to justify the search of a lawfully stopped vehicle, they are also justified in searching every part of that vehicle and its contents that may conceal the object of the search, including all containers within the vehicle, regardless of ownership of those containers and without a showing of individualized probable cause for each container.

Early one morning, Officer Gatewood and his partner observed a vehicle containing four occupants parked near a bar in a high crime area known for gang violence, drug violence, and drug sales. After parking their police cruiser on the southwest side of the bar, Officers Gatewood and Farley walked up to the vehicle to determine “what was going on.”

As they approached, Officer Gatewood, an experienced officer with extensive exposure to marijuana during his police career, “detected the odor of burnt marijuana coming from the area around the vehicle.” Further, as he walked up the passenger side and shined his flashlight inside the vehicle, he “observed a small bag of what appeared to be marijuana on the back seat passenger side floor.” Upon the police bringing the existence of the baggie of marijuana to the attention of the occupants, the driver “tried crawling into the back seat, between the seats,…and then she tried to exit the vehicle.”

Because of the driver’s reaction and the possibility of marijuana being in the car, the officers asked the occupants to exit the vehicle. Runyan was sitting in the back passenger seat on the driver’s side, while another female was sitting in the back passenger seat on the passenger side. The driver and another female passenger were seated in the front of the vehicle. The officers handcuffed each occupant and detained them behind the vehicle.

Officer Gatewood testified that he then searched the vehicle. He recovered the baggie of marijuana and several purses that he removed and searched. One purse contained Runyan’s I.D., two syringes and a spoon that had white residue on it. At this point, he placed Runyan under arrest, charging her with three counts of possession of drug paraphernalia.

Runyan filed a Motion to Suppress, arguing that the search of her purse was unlawful. The trial court granted the Motion, holding that the warrantless search of purses of the passengers of the vehicle was not justified by the search incident to arrest exception. And, because the search went further than the vehicle itself and included the purses that were inside the vehicle, it was unlawful.

The Commonwealth appealed, arguing that the police did not search Runyan’s purse incident to an arrest; rather, since the officers had probable cause to search the vehicle, the search properly included Runyan’s purse in which the contraband sought could be concealed.


The analysis applied by the Superior Court in this case outlines how Pennsylvania jurisprudence – which previously provided Pennsylvanians with greater privacy protections regarding vehicle searches – has changed within the last few years, becoming more consistent with federal Fourth Amendment jurisprudence and, some would argue, less protective of Pennsylvanian’s privacy.

Specifically, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held in 2014 that when police possess probable cause to search a vehicle, the only exigent circumstance required to permit a warrantless search is the inherent nature of the automobile’s mobility. Thus, it held that, where police possess probable cause to search a car, a warrantless search is permissible.

The natural question that followed this decision was, “to what extent could police search a vehicle when they possess probable cause?” The U.S. Supreme Court had previously answered that question in 1999 by holding that if probable cause justified the search of a lawfully stopped vehicle, it justified the search of every part of the vehicle and its contents that may conceal the object of the search, and the rule also applied to all containers within a car, without qualification as to ownership and without a showing of individualized probable cause for each container. Even so, because Pennsylvania case law interpreting our state constitution provided Pennsylvanians with greater privacy protection regarding vehicle searches based on probable cause up until 2014, this “scope of search” question was typically not an issue.

After 2014, when the PA Supreme Court’s decision held that Pennsylvania automobile search and seizure law and federal Fourth Amendment jurisprudence were now coextensive, this “scope of search question” was now an issue with which to be reckoned. In 2015, the Superior Court did just that, holding that the standards set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court for automobile searches based on probable cause now necessarily applied to Pennsylvania automobile search and seizures as well. In essence, a package may be searched, whether or not its owner is present as a passenger or otherwise, if it might contain the contraband that the officer has probable cause to believe is in the car.

In light of the above, the Superior Court in the instant case concluded that if the police had probable cause to search the vehicle in which Runyan was a passenger for contraband,  he was also permitted to search any container found therein where the contraband could be concealed, including Runyan’s purse. Thus, the only question left was for the Court to determine whether such probable cause existed.

Based on the totality of the circumstances highlighted above, the Superior Court concluded that the officers had probable cause to believe the vehicle contained contraband and, that was all that was necessary to justify the warrantless search of the vehicle, as well as the search of Runyan’s purse where the contraband could be concealed.


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