Pennsylvania Supreme Court Allows Warrantless Searches of Vehicles

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania recently issued an opinion which allows for the warrantless search of a vehicle in Commonwealth v. Gary.  The Court adopted the federal standard which allows for the search of a vehicle, without a warrant, when probable cause exists. 

In this case, the defendant was observed driving a vehicle with heavily tinted windows.  Police believed the level of tint violated the Pennsylvania Vehicle Code and pulled over the defendant.  During their stop, officers noted the smell of marijuana coming from the passenger side of the vehicle.  When police questioned the defendant, he admitted there was marijuana in the vehicle and then tried to flee the scene.  Police apprehended the defendant and then searched the vehicle.  They recovered approximately two pounds of marijuana.  The defendant filed a motion to suppress evidence obtained during the warrantless search of his vehicle.

As the dissenting opinion points out, Pennsylvania has had a long tradition of protecting privacy rights of individuals, above and beyond the protections afforded under the Federal Constitution.  This case represents further erosion of the privacy rights under Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.  Prior to this opinion, for the government to search a vehicle without consent and without a warrant, they would need both probable cause to believe a crime has been committed and that evidence of that crime will be found in the search and exigent circumstances which would justify a warrantless search.   Typically exigent circumstances exist when it is likely that the evidence will be lost or destroyed before police have the opportunity to obtain a warrant.

The lower court in this case found that no exigency existed because the defendant was already in custody and therefore there was no possibility that he could drive the car away with the evidence. The Supreme Court reasoned that the exigent circumstances requirement had been applied inconsistently across Pennsylvania, making it difficult for law enforcement to know when they would be required to obtain a warrant.  In following the reasoning of the U.S. Supreme Court, the court also held that individuals have a diminished expectation of privacy in their vehicles, thus justifying a broader rule for warrantless searches. The Court found that there are no real distinctions between the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.   Therefore, Pennsylvania should follow the precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court which allows for warrantless search of automobiles based solely on probable cause.