PA Adopts Federal Automobile Exception to Warrant Requirement

The general rule in Pennsylvania is that in order to search your vehicle, police must obtain a search warrant. There are various exceptions to the "warrant requirement" which permit the police to conduct a search of a vehicle without a warrant. Unlike a home, citizens have a decreased expectation of privacy in their vehicles for two main reasons. First, members of law enforcement have extensive contact with motor vehicles, frequently observing evidence of criminality in "plain view" through the vehicle's windows. Second, vehicles are subject to stringent state regulations.

Under the Federal Automobile Exception, members of law enforcement are permitted to search a motor vehicle when there is probable cause to search the vehicle, and the only exigent circumstance is the inherent mobility of the vehicle. Under federal law, the police only needed sufficient facts to believe the car contains evidence of a crime or contraband before conducting a search. There is no requirement under the federal automobile exception for the police to demonstrate any reason why they couldn't obtain a warrant before searching. 

Article I, Section 8 of Pennsylvania's Constitution used to be interpreted to afford citizens greater protection against unlawful searches of motor vehicles than the US Constitution. Previously, in order for law enforcement to conduct a warrantless search of a motor vehicle, there must have been (1) probable cause to search the vehicle and (2) exigent circumstances beyond the mobility of the vehicle which prevent the police from obtaining a warrant before searching the car. Put simply, the police needed to establish that sufficient facts exist to believe the car contains evidence of a crime or contraband and some urgent reason, other than the ability to drive the car from the scene, that prevents the police from applying for a warrant before searching the vehicle. 

On April 29, 2014, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rendered a decision in the case of Commonwealth vs. Gary, formally adopting the federal automobile exception to the warrant requirement. While police still need probable cause to search your vehicle (i.e. sufficient facts to believe car contains evidence of crime or contraband), they no longer need to establish that it is impossible to get a warrant under the circumstances. The holding in this case is listed below:

"In sum, our review reveals no compelling reason to interpret Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution as providing greater protection with regard to warrantless searches of motor vehicles than does the Fourth Amendment. Therefore, we hold that, in this Commonwealth, the law governing warrantless searches of motor vehicles is coextensive with federal law under the Fourth Amendment. The prerequisite for a warrantless search of a motor vehicle is probable cause to search; no exigency beyond the inherent mobility of a motor vehicle is required. The consistent and firm requirement for probable cause is a strong and sufficient safeguard against illegal searches of motor vehicles, whose inherent mobility and the endless factual circumstances that such mobility engenders constitute a per se exigency allowing police officers to make the determination of probable cause in the first instance in the field."

What does this mean for you? For starters, we will see a greater number of searches conducted by police on the basis that they observed "furtive movements."  All it will likely take is a police officer saying "I saw the driver reaching for the floor, the glove box, etc" at a court hearing to justify a warrantless vehicle search. Previously, the officer would have to document the exact nature of these movements to a detached and neutral magisterial district justice who would have to find that probable cause existed.

If your vehicle has been searched by police and you do not have an attorney to represent you in an upcoming case - call the Zuckerman Law Firm today for a free consultation - 412-447-5580.