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Pennsylvania High Court Abandons Warrant Requirement for Automobile Searches

Friday, May 2, 2014

This past Tuesday, in a four to two decision, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania decided that police officers can search an automobile without a warrant as long as the officers have probable cause that they will find contraband or evidence of a crime.  A lengthy majority opinion compared state and federal protections against unreasonable searches.   

The case raised the issue of whether Pennsylvania's warrant requirement, contained in Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, provides more protection for automobile searches than the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.  With the 1925 case of Carroll v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed the so-called “automobile exception” to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement, and federal courts have since found increasing justifications for allowing warrantless searches of motor vehicles. The Carroll opinion, however, required the use of warrants when doing so remained practical.

The original justification for the “automobile exception” was in part due to the limitations of technology at the time Carroll was decided.  The Carroll court determined that the warrant requirement was inapplicable to automobiles because of the mobile nature of automobiles as opposed to fixed structures and the amount of time it would take to get a warrant in 1925.  Nevertheless, the “automobile exception”, as it is applied today in federal courts requires only that a police officer have probable cause that a search of the vehicle will result in discovery of evidence of a crime or contraband. 

While some might argue that the original justification for the “automobile exception” has been undermined by modern technology (such as computer terminals in police cruisers) that can reduce the time of the warrant application process, it nonetheless remains the law in most U.S. states, and, as of Tuesday, is now the law in Pennsylvania as well.

Two justices dissented from the opinion, noting that Pennsylvania’s constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure predated those of the U.S. Constitution.  According to the dissenting justices, the Pennsylvania provision “enshrined the requirement of specific warrants issued by a neutral judge as an integral part of our state constitutional framework and, correspondingly, established such warrants as the main protection of the substantial privacy interests of our citizenry in every place where they choose to keep their most private papers and possessions.” Considering the “singular and distinctive importance to Pennsylvania” of the warrant requirement and the historical events that led to its enactment, they would have maintained the greater protection offered by prior Pennsylvania case law.

Those traveling with firearms in motor vehicles should remain aware of both their responsibilities and their rights. While motorists should never interfere with or try to run from the police, they do not have to give their permission for searches of themselves or their vehicles nor, as a general matter, to answer questions beyond identifying themselves and producing license, registration, and insurance documents. Those carrying concealed firearms pursuant to a license in Pennsylvania must also produce that license upon lawful demand of a police officer.

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