Pennsylvania Supreme Court Okays Warrantless Search of Vehicles

In a decision that is expected to have a major impact on criminal cases in Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently overturned decades of precedent to hold that searches of motor vehicles do not require a warrant, provided that police have “probable cause.” This holding, announced by the court last week in Commonwealth v Gary, is likely to significantly change the landscape for many criminal cases involving vehicles, and our criminal defense team is studying it closely.

Prior to this decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court long held that the search and seizure protections of the Pennsylvania state constitution prevented the warrantless search of vehicles, with some limited exceptions. This guaranteed more protection than provided by the United States Constitution, which the United States Supreme Court has long held allows warrantless vehicle searches. In effect, the court has ruled that the Pennsylvania constitution and the United States Constitution offer the same protections, and that warrantless searches are permissible in Pennsylvania, as long as officers have probable cause to believe that the vehicle may contain evidence of criminal activity. As the court stated:

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 exact effect of this holding on any given criminal case is likely to be extremely fact specific, and the change in law further highlights the need for anyone charged with a crime to consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney. This opinion is likely to result in a high volume of cases in which police officers search vehicles without first obtaining a warrant, but it does not give them an unrestricted right to do so. Only an attorney with knowledge of your specific case can review the facts of your case to determine whether any search by police was done within the limits of the law, and advise you on how that may affect your case.

If you, or anyone you know, has been charged with a crime in Pennsylvania, whether it involves the search of a vehicle or not, contact us today for a no-charge consultation with an experienced criminal defense attorney.

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