The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently enhanced constitutional protections related to automobile searches in Commonwealth v. Alexander, WL 7567601 (Pa. 2020).
Police officers stopped a vehicle driven by the defendant. The officers smelled marijuana and the defendant admitted to recently smoking a blunt. The officers arrested the defendant, placed him in the patrol car and searched the vehicle for more marijuana. During the search, the officers discovered a locked metal box that contained bundles of heroin.
Subsequently, the defendant was convicted of possession with intent to deliver. The Superior Court affirmed the decision, holding that pursuant to Commonwealth v. Gary, 91 A.3d 102 (Pa. 2014), all that was needed to search a vehicle is probable cause and the scope of the search extends to any container that may contain the relevant items.
On December 22, 2020, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the Superior Court's decision and overruled Commonwealth v. Gary. Now, the Pennsylvania Constitution affords even more protection than the U.S. Constitution in that it requires both a showing of probable cause and exigent circumstances to justify the search of someone's car without a warrant.
Essentially, what “exigent circumstances” means here is that the police either need a warrant, or need to be able to prove that the potential evidence would be lost or destroyed due to their waiting to acquire a warrant. This creates a very high standard for the Commonwealth.
Fundamental Right to Personal Privacy
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution grant individuals the fundamental right to privacy. The fundamental right to privacy is triggered when law enforcement conducts a search or seizure. A search occurs when law enforcement intrudes upon an individual's privacy interest. A seizure occurs when law enforcement restrains an individual freedom of movement.
The default rule is that a warrant is required prior to a search of a vehicle. Absent a warrant, the search will be presumed unconstitutional unless an exception to the warrant requirement exists. One such exception is the “automobile exception.”
Elevated Constitutional Protections under Alexander
Under previous Pennsylvania law, police officers could conduct a warrantless search of a vehicle when there was probable cause, with no exigency required beyond the inherent mobility of a vehicle. Commonwealth v. Gary, 91 A.3d 102 (Pa. 2014).
However, in Alexander, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that warrantless vehicle searches require both probable cause and exigent circumstances under Article 1, Section 8 of the state constitution. Fundamentally, the Court ruled that police officers cannot search a vehicle without a warrant unless the circumstances indicate a fair probability that criminal activity is afoot, and compelling reasons – beyond the inherent mobility of a vehicle – exist to override an individual's fundamental right to privacy.
In conclusion, this 2020 case enhances your privacy rights in your vehicle. If you get pulled over, you can deny the police the right to search your vehicle without a warrant. This is important, because allowing them to do so waives this protection. Exigent circumstances may still exist, but what exactly creates an “exigent circumstance” will be a decision for the courts on a case-by-case basis.
To learn more, or if you have questions, call our firm today.
By: Corey A. Bauer, Esq. & Eric Scott Wyant II, Esq.
This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.