The law regarding searches and seizures is constantly in flux and both federal and Pennsylvania state courts issue decisions regularly that define the contours of this area of criminal law. One such area is searches and seizures about drug and gun cases. As discussed more fully below, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling that changed the rules about this area of law.
Prior Law on Drug and Gun Searches and Seizures
Before the Pennsylvania issued the decision in the case at hand, police officers in the state were not permitted to seize or render immobile a vehicle during a warrantless traffic stop unless they had both exigent circumstances for such a stop and probable cause. Normally, under the fourth amendment to the United States Constitution and Article 1 of the state constitution, police officers have first to obtain a warrant from a judge by showing probable cause before conducting a search. There are a few exceptions: one is the existence of an emergency or exigent circumstances. These circumstances may include the need to protect the public or an officer from harm, or the need to take quick action to preserve evidence. Notably, drug and gun cases often involve these circumstances where warrantless searches are often conducted and frequently litigated.
Additionally, searches of vehicles are often exempt from these requirements as well under the federal constitution. Searches of automobiles are usually permissible as long as probable cause exists – under federal law, there is no need for exigent circumstances to be present. This exception centers on the mobility of vehicles. Federal courts have also recognized that people have diminished expectations of privacy in their vehicles, as opposed to their residences. Pennsylvania afforded greater protections for individuals in these types of searches by still requiring the existence of exigent circumstances.
Change in Law Through Commonwealth v. Gary
In Commonwealth v. Gary, police officers stopped and approached a heavily-tinted SUV believing that the tint violated the motor vehicle code. Upon approaching, the officers noticed the smell of marijuana coming from the vehicle. One officer asked the driver if there was anything the officers needed to know about, and the driver responded that there was marijuana in the car. The officers then conducted a search and found two pounds of marijuana. They arrested the driver and charged him with several drug crimes. Before the trial, the defendant asked the court to suppress the marijuana recovered from the vehicle because the warrantless search was not supported by the existence of exigent circumstances. A court granted the motion to suppress and agreed with the defendant that there were no exigent circumstances.
The state prosecutors appealed, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned existing law regarding searches and seizures. The Court in Gary found that there was no reason for the state to provide greater protection than the U.S. Constitution as to warrantless searches of vehicles. The Court looked at the majority of states that adopted the federal court’s sole requirement of probable cause without requiring exigent circumstances. Therefore, the Court in Gary held that warrantless searches of automobiles are permissible if the police have probable cause. The mobility of a motor vehicle suffices without having to look for emergency or exigent facts to support a search. Police in Pennsylvania no longer have to show that exigent circumstances, such as the danger of harm to others or preservation of evidence, exist to justify such warrantless searches.
Additionally, the Court found the need for a single, uniform standard for warrantless vehicle searches that are applicable in both federal and state court to be persuasive. According to the Court, the differing standard can cause conflict, confusion, and inconsistency.
If you have been charged with a crime in Central Pennsylvania, you should contact Coover & Scheidemann by calling our office at (717) 885-5830 for a low-cost initial consultation. We have years of combined experience in criminal cases and can help you strategize on how to defend best against the charges. You can also contact Coover & Scheidemann by submitting our online message form.