When Can Police Search Your Car?

The Pennsylvania Superior Court recently upheld the suppression of evidence illegally seized from a vehicle, finding that police lacked a warrant or any exception to the warrant requirement to conduct their search.  In Commonwealth v. Newman, 2014 Pa.Super. 2, police were conducting surveillance of numerous drug transactions when they observed the defendant take a black grocery bag from a person under police watch.  Police did not observe an exchange of money or drugs, but followed the vehicle and subsequently pulled it over. The defendant was asked to exit the vehicle.  Police observed the black bag on the floor of the passenger side of the vehicle, and when they opened it found suspected vials of cocaine. The Superior Court held that, as the sole occupant and driver of the vehicle, the defendant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the vehicle.  Therefore, the Fourth Amendment required police to either obtain a warrant, or to abide by a warrant expectation prior to searching the contents of the vehicle.  The Court also found that the ‘Plain View’ exception did not apply because it was not immediately apparent that the black bag held incriminating evidence. Furthermore the Court concluded that police lacked probable cause to stop the vehicle and therefore were not permitted to search the vehicle.  For those reasons the evidence seized was suppressed.

Do police need a warrant to search my car?

No.  While the Fourth Amendment to the federal constitution, and Article 1, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution protect your right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, there are many exceptions to the warrant requirement for vehicle searches.   Although police may generally be required to obtain a warrant before conducting a vehicle search, they often get around this by seeking your consent, conducting searches incident to arrest, alleging exigent circumstances, impounding your vehicle, or asserting the ‘plain view doctrine’.

Should you consent to a search of your car?

No. One of the most common ways police get around a warrant requirement is by requesting that the driver consent to a search.  The questioning officer may make you feel as though you must consent if you have nothing to hide.  It is important to remember that you are under absolutely no obligation to agree to a police search, and your refusal alone cannot be used against you and cannot be used to further detain you.

What should you do if police searched your vehicle without your consent and without a warrant?

You should contact an attorney who can evaluate your specific situation.  If you have been charged with a crime and police unlawfully obtained evidence against you, an attorney may file a motion to suppress the evidence on your behalf.