Warrantless Vehicle Searches; Pennsylvania Supreme Court adopts the Federal Standard

On April 29, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court adopted the federal automobile exception which allows police officers to search a motor vehicle when there is probable cause to do so, without the need to obtain a search warrant from a judge.  PA Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery wrote the majority opinion in the case of Commonwealth v. Shiem Gary (29 A.3d 804).  Justice McCaffrey writes that “the prerequisite for a warrantless search of a motor vehicle is probable cause to search.”  This is the same standard that applies under the United States Constitution; the same standard used by federal law enforcement authorities.

Upon reading the PA Supreme Court’s opinion, most criminal defense attorneys agree that the legal standard for a vehicle search in Pennsylvania has not changed at all.  Law enforcement officers will need the same amount of suspicion and evidence to search a vehicle now as they did before to obtain search warrant from a judge.  The standard is still “probable cause.”  The mere act of being stopped for a traffic violation is not probable cause for a vehicle search.  Police need additional evidence that the driver is involved in illegal activity greater than the traffic infraction.

It is important to note that “probable cause” is a higher requirement than just a suspicion that criminal activity is afoot.  Police cannot search a vehicle for just any reason.  As in the past, probable cause is required.  The real difference now is that the officers need not show probable cause to a Magisterial District Judge to get a search warrant in advance of the search, rather the issue of probable cause is something that will be litigated in a Motion to Suppress before a Judge in the Court of Common Pleas long after the arrest.  The standard of probable cause, however, remains unchanged.

Citizens should note that it remains their right to refuse to consent to a search of their person, vehicle, home or other property.  If the police officer has a search warrant or believes that he has probable cause the officer will conduct the search, but with the assistance and representation of an experienced criminal defense attorney you can challenge the search in court.