Do you know when the police can search your car?

Until recently, Pennsylvania cops could search your car without a warrant if they had probable cause. This is a significant exception to the Fourth Amendment, which protects you from unreasonable searches and seizures. Usually, police need a warrant to search your home and other property.

However, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court asked whether this exception should continue. The answer turned out to be no.

There are still times when officers can search your car. But because of the court’s ruling in Commonwealth v. Alexander, the police in Pennsylvania need more than probable cause. They also need something called “exigent circumstances.”

If officers searched your vehicle and you’re facing criminal charges in or around Chester County, PA, contact Skinner Law Firm online or at (610) 436-1410. We’ll review whether cops had a right to search your car and how we can help in a free consultation.

What Happened in Alexander?

In May 2016, the police pulled over Keith Alexander. They noticed his car smelled like marijuana, and Alexander admitted that he and his passenger recently smoked. Officers arrested Alexander and removed him and his passenger from the vehicle.

The officers then searched the car. They didn’t find marijuana, but they did find a metal lockbox. Officers used a critical Alexander kept on a keychain to unlock it. Inside, they found bundles of heroin.

Alexander was charged with possession with intent to deliver. At trial, he filed a motion to suppress the evidence. The trial judge denied the motion and convicted him.

Alexander appealed the conviction, claiming the officers:

  • Didn’t have probable cause to search the vehicle
  • Should have had a warrant to search the lockbox

The Superior Court disagreed. The officers only need probable cause to search the car. That was the rule the Pennsylvania Supreme Court made in Commonwealth v. Gary. During the search, officers could look in any container that might contain marijuana.

Alexander appealed again, taking his case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s Decision

When Alexander took his case to the state Supreme Court, he asked it to overturn or limit Gary. In Gary, the Supreme Court said the federal exception allowing warrantless vehicle searches applied in Pennsylvania.

During Alexander’s appeal, the court realized it hadn’t decided the issue completely. It agreed there was a legal question.

Is the federal vehicle search exception to warrants consistent with Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution?

The court looked at its past opinions in cases involving warrantless vehicle searches. It also looked at privacy rights under the U.S. Constitution vs. the Pennsylvania Constitution. In decisions before Gary, the court often said the Pennsylvania Constitution awarded people more privacy than the Fourth Amendment. Justices routinely recognized a vehicle exception. But it was different from the federal exception.

In Alexander, the court decided the federal warrantless vehicle search exception wasn’t compatible with Article I, Section 8. Why? Because the Pennsylvania Constitution prioritizes your right to privacy over the officers’ need to find incriminating evidence right away.

The court overturned Gary and changed when Pennsylvania police officers can perform vehicle searches.

If the cops don’t have your permission or a warrant, they need:

  1. Probable cause
  2. Exigent circumstances

The court decided not to define exigent circumstances. It recognized it couldn’t give a definition that would fit all possible cases. In general, exigency means there’s an urgent need or demand. It would be unreasonable for the police to get a warrant first.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned the Alexander decision and sent it back to the trial court.

Have You Been the Victim of an Unlawful Vehicle Search?

If you believe cops illegally searched your vehicle, call Skinner Law Firm right away. Attorney Skinner will talk with you about how you were stopped and what the cops said and did. He’ll review whether the cops had an urgent need to search your car without a warrant.

If officers have evidence from an unlawful search, we’ll file a motion to suppress that evidence. To learn more, give us a call at (610) 436-1410 or use our online form. We offer free, confidential consultations.

Article Author

Michael J. Skinner, the founder of Skinner Law Firm LLC, is a former prosecutor with the Chester County District Attorney’s Office.

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