Right Of Police To Search Your Vehicle Without A Warrant is Expanded

This week, the PA Supreme Court decided a case, Commonwealth v. Gary, that involved the right of police to search our vehicles without a warrant. The decision is an interesting study on how our democracy is structured because it discusses the interplay between the protections against unreasonable searches afforded by the Pennsylvania State and US Constitutions.

Typically, police need a warrant based on probable cause to search our homes, cars and personal effects. This requirement is set forth in both the U.S. and PA State Constitutions. However, there are some exceptions to this rule and one of them deals with the search of vehicles because of their inherent mobility. In other words, since a car can be driven away before a warrant is obtained and evidence destroyed in the process, police can search a vehicle without a warrant if they have probable cause to believe there is evidence or contraband in the vehicle. That was the exception at issue in the Gary case.

As the PA Supreme Court noted, it may in appropriate cases, extend greater protections under the Pennsylvania Constitution than those afforded under the U.S. Constitution. However, the Court elected not to do so in this particular case even though there appeared to be some historical distinctions made by the Supreme and Superior Courts interpreting warrantless searches of motor vehicles by police that did extend greater protections.

In essence, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded that the current state of the law had “fallen short” of the stated “responsibility to provide guidance to the bench, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and local and state police officers as to the constitutional requirements for a warrantless vehicular search.” In deciding to follow Federal jurisprudence concerning this issue rather than extending greater State protections to our rights against unreasonable searches, the Court apparently concluded that using the federal automobile exception would provide greater clarity “for police officers in the field”; “greater uniformity in the assessment of individual cases [by the Courts]”; and, “more consistency with regard to the admissibility of the fruits of vehicular searches based on probable cause.”

What this means to each of us is that if police develop probable cause to search a vehicle in this Commonwealth, they need not provide any additional information in order to justify a search of that vehicle without a warrant. This does not mean that they may search every vehicle they stop. They must still develop probable cause before they are permitted to search your vehicle without a warrant. And lastly, none of this legal jurisprudence matters if you give the officer lawful consent to search your vehicle or property.

See quotes from McMahon & Winters partner, Michael T. Winters, in the following news article on this issue:

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