State Supreme Court allows warrantless search of automobiles

By Jim Boyle | May 7, 2014

State and local police in Pennsylvania now have the authority to search a suspect's vehicle

on the grounds of probable cause, without needing a warrant, according to a 4-2 ruling by the state supreme court last week.

The decision puts state law enforcement agencies in line with federal authorities' ability to conduct warrantless automobile searches, said Justice Seamus McCaffrey in the opinion.

"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," McCaffrey writes. "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 decision reversed a ruling by the Pennsylvania Superior Court that granted an appeal by Sheim Gary, who was charged with drug possession following a traffic stop in 2010. At the time of the incident, two Philadelphia police officers pulled Gary's vehicle over because it had tinted windows. When the officers approached the SUV, they detected the odor of marijuana. According to court records, they asked Gary if there was anything in the vehicle they should know about, Gary told the officers there was some weed.

A search with the K-9 unit yielded two pounds of marijuana and Gary was charged with possession of a controlled substance and intent to deliver. In municipal court, Gary moved to have the search suppressed because of its warrantless nature. The motion was denied, but the Superior Court granted a new trial with the search suppressed. The court ruled that since Gary had been placed into police custody, the investigators had enough time to secure a warrant before the search.

During review of previous cases presented to the state supreme court, the justices determined that warrantless searches were upheld in some incidents and ruled illegal in others due to lack of exigent circumstances beyond probable cause. Last week's decision holds that nothing more than probable cause is no longer required.

In the dissenting opinion, Justice Deborah McCloskey Todd counters that some expectation of privacy should be upheld for cars, which contain GPS and other data to which officers would gain access.

"Advances in technology have caused cars to become data repositories revealing the most discrete information about how and where individuals drive, whom they call from their car and any number of other revealing insights into what they do in their daily lives," she wrote. "For most people, the automobile…has become a rolling repository of their private possessions."

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