PA. Supreme Court Allows Warrantless Searches Of Vehicles

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court drastically changed the law of the Commonwealth on April 29, 2014 when it decided that warrantless searches of cars are acceptable in the case of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Shiem Gary, 29 A.3d 204(Pa.Super. 2011).

Previously, Pennsylvania law held that Article 1, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution afforded greater protection than the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Thus, unless a police officer was given consent to search a motor vehicle, a warrant was required. This was not in line with Federal Law which permitted warrantless searches if supported by probable cause.

Now, a sharply divided Supreme Court has adopted the federal automobile exception to the warrant requirement, which allows police officers to search any motor vehicle without a warrant if there is probable cause.

For example, in the Gary case, police officers pulled over the defendant for a violation of the motor vehicle code; driving an SUV with heavily tinted windows. Upon approaching the vehicle, the officers noticed a strong odor of marijuana eminating from the SUV. A search of the vehichle yielded two pounds of marijuana, found under the front hood in a bag lodged next to the air filter.

Pennsylvania has long held a higher standard for privacy than the United States Constitution. With the ruling in Gary, it will be interesting to see what other case law is changed to eliminate the diffence between the Pennsylvania state and federal laws regarding privacy.

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