“Pennsylvania has long been at the constitutional forefront in recognizing the vital necessity of prior judicial approval of searches conducted by governmental officials, obtained through the warrant process, in order to maintain the fundamental right of the people to security from unreasonable searches and seizures.” – Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Debra Todd
On December 22, 2020 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the Pennsylvania Constitution affords greater protection to our citizens than the United States Constitution in determining that to search an automobile, law enforcement must either have a warrant supported by probable cause or that there is both a showing of probable cause and exigent circumstances exist that evidence will be destroyed or lost if the search isn’t conducted immediately.
Back in 2014, The Pennsylvania Supreme Court adopted a federal rule allowing law enforcement to search automobiles without first applying for a search warrant. The rationale is that due to the inherent mobility of an automobile, exigent circumstances automatically exist to search the vehicle without first applying for a search warrant. Consequently, police officers were able to search a person’s vehicle based on solely on their own notion that they had probable cause. For example, if an officer claimed he could smell marijuana during a traffic stop, the officer could then search the entire vehicle without further approval from the operator or a court. That is no longer the case.
In returning to the long held idea Pennsylvania Constitution affords its citizens greater protections than the federal counterpart, law enforcement can no longer search a vehicle based on probable cause alone. They must have a warrant, or some exception to the warrant requirement, such as exigent circumstances, must exist.
Pursuant to the ruling issued by the Court, exigent circumstances are to be determined on a case by case basis, Courts will have to decide whether exigent circumstances justified warrantless searches in discrete scenarios, with a focus on the particular facts.
This is a welcome departure from the bright line rule that exigent circumstances always exist simply because the object of the search is a vehicle. If you or someone you know has had their constitutional rights violated, the attorneys at Mooney Law will be able to help. Contact us today to schedule a consultation with an attorney experienced in dealing with Pennsylvania’s search and seizure laws. For the month of January, our consultations are free. So don’t wait. call Mooney Law at 717-200-HELP or 833-MOONEYLAW for experienced, proven, and trusted criminal defense.
Shawn M. Stottlemyer is an attorney who has dealt with many cases involving Pennsylvania’s drug, firearm and search and seizure laws. .