• May 27th 2014 at 12:15PM
  • 438


Police officers in Pennsylvania no longer need a warrant to search your car during a traffic stop.

A recent court ruling granted law-enforcement authorities broader powers in determining whether they can search a vehicle. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that officers merely needed probable cause to conduct a search.

That's the same standard as most other states. But for a long time, Pennsylvania's constitution provided its citizens with additional privacy protections that went above and beyond the federal ones found in the Fourth Amendment.

For motorists, that extra protection meant police officers needed a warrant to search a vehicle, with exceptions made in unusual instances, like when an officer's life was in danger or a suspect was about to destroy evidence. Now, police will only need probable cause to commence a vehicle search.

State authorities say the ruling will help them expedite searches in an ongoing fight against drug trafficking. Privacy advocates, however, say the warrant requirement provided valuable judicial oversight, and they fear now-unchecked police searches will lead to abuses of authority.

"The search-warrant requirement ensured a second set of eyes – a neutral set of eyes – that took a look at the information," said Andy Hoover, the legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union's office in the state. "Without that, the risk increases that people will be searched when they should not have been."

The state's highest court issued the ruling in a 4-2 decision announced earlier this month. In writing the opinion for the majority in the case, Commonwealth v. Gary, Justice Seamus McCaffrey said he sought to end years of inconsistency between Article I, Section 8 of the state constitution and the federal law. He wrote there was no compelling reason for the discrepancy.

But in a dissent, Justice Debra McCloskey Todd wrote that the decision "has eviscerated the strong privacy protections that amendment affords the people of Pennsylvania in their automobiles. The court heedlessly contravenes over 225 years of unyielding protection against unreasonable search and seizure."

One of the key questions in the Pennsylvania case – and in similar cases elsewhere over the years – was whether citizens are afforded the same privacy rights in their vehicles as they are in, say, their homes or offices. For a long time, the answer has been "no."
Should police be required to obtain a warrant to search a car?
Yes 3517 (75.7%)
No 1132 (24.3%)


Since the days of bootlegging during Prohibition, courts have ruled that citizens driving on public roads have a diminished expectation of privacy, and the mere mobility of vehicles makes it impractical for police officers to obtain a warrant in many cases.

Courts have largely permitted police officers to use their own discretion in searching a car, so long as their search met what became the "probable cause" standard. In the legal realm, this became known as the "federal automobile exception" to the Fourth Amendment.

McCloskey Todd argued in her dissent that laws and judicial opinions have failed to keep up with technology. Rather than reducing privacy protections in the present day, she argues, they need heightened protection now more than ever.

"Advances in technology have caused cars to become data repositories revealing the most discreet information about how and where individuals drive, whom they call from their car, and any number of other revealing insights," she wrote.

The reduced search standard is one of two items that Pennsylvania police hope will aid them in their search for illegal contraband and drugs. This month, the state's House Judiciary Committee approved legislation that would make it a crime to possess a car that contains a secret compartment.

State Rep. Kate Harper told the Pottstown Mercury that law enforcement asked her to sponsor the bill because they are concerned about "a well-known smuggling route between New York and Florida." Should the bill eventually become law, motorists driving cars with such compartments could have their vehicles seized, even if there's no actual drugs or contraband in the compartment.

A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Police did not return a request for comment.

"The bill requires a person have criminal intent, but that is vague," Hoover said. "That leaves prosecutors deciding what is criminal intent, so the mere act of having a compartment in your car, a prosecutor could think you were planning something criminal even if you weren't doing anything criminal, and that becomes a crime."

The bottom line, he said, is that "police aren't catching people in the act, so now they want to make parts of the car criminal."

Pete Bigelow is an associate editor at AOL Autos. He can be reached via email at peter.bigelow@teamaol.com and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.


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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 438 Comments
      Fran
      • 1 Year Ago
      well eveyone should cary gun and shoot anybody that steps on thier freedom no matter who it is as citzens its the right thing to do. it would be the honorable thing to do they want to change the rules so should we.
      barbarianxx
      • 1 Year Ago
      all of you who protest this action obviously have something to hide. thats all i have to say about that
      jrwolfman1
      • 1 Year Ago
      I travel through PA all of the time. Nothing to hide, so if they need to search fine with me. For those that say "they wont search my car without a warrant" I am sure there are consequences to your actions. I've seen people such as you handcuffed to the wheels on a car, hand cuffed an d lying on the ground, handcuffed to telephone poles so go ahead and mess with the PA Law Enforcement Officers. Please dont forget to post what happened to you! Ethugs! Some of you carrying guns that are convicted Fellons or otherwise cannot carry concealed. A home is one thing but a car moving down the road another. Too many of you are putting inocent lives at risk, texting and driving, wreckless driving, talking on the phone, going way over the posted speed limit. What is worth risking your life or someone elses for saving minutes off your commute? Oh and dont forget those video cameras rolling, they cannot lie and cannot be erase or edited in the field.
        spokajo
        • 1 Year Ago
        @jrwolfman1
        jrwolfman1.... you are (as Bugs Bunny would say) a "Maroon"!! Wait until you are left on the side of the road with your luggage tossed all over the place because that officer is not required to, nor will he, put things back as he found them plus any damage to your car is your problem not his/hers.
        • 1 Year Ago
        @jrwolfman1
        You know, your comment reminds me of why America used to be free. We used to be free because the government knew if they got too high and mighty, the people would rise up and say, "not just NO, but HAIL NO!". Today, we have people like you. You are essentially saying, "I don't care about my rights, because I have nothing to hide, and I have the perception that this relaxing of rights makes me safer." The problem with this attitude is twofold: 1) You are no safer than you were before, and I can make the argument you are less safe, and 2) If you don't stand up for what you consider an inconsequential right -- since you have nothing to hide -- you have no moral ground upon which to stand when they decide PC is all they need to enter your home, or something else you might consider dear. Our entire justice system is based off of one simple concept: Innocent until proven guilty. With each creeping loss of privacy, we are slowly becoming a society of guilty until proven innocent. And The State holds all the cards.
          Rick
          • 1 Year Ago
          You are totally right...........
        spokajo
        • 1 Year Ago
        @jrwolfman1
        jrwolfman1.... you are (as Bugs Bunny would say) a "Maroon"!! Wait until you are left on the side of the road with your luggage tossed all over the place because that officer is not required to, nor will he, put things back as he found them plus any damage to your car is your problem not his/hers.
        josephmlr21
        • 1 Year Ago
        @jrwolfman1
        The problem is they won,t stop here in due time they will extend the same laws to your home also. That is why we try to protect the rights we have.
      Rick
      • 1 Year Ago
      Jesse Ventura made a statement a while ago, right around the time he was governor. He said: You might think there's two separate parties, but the truth of the matter is the democrats and republicans are in bed with each other........... They don't want any Outsiders or separate political groups controlling anything within the political field. A friend of mine also had made a statement most recently........ The democrats and the republicans want you to believe or think that you have a right to vote........ And that your vote will make a difference. The truth of the matter is our destiny has already been planned by both of the parties. So it really does not matter who you vote for.... The outcome will be the same............... THERE IS NO MORE CONSTITUTION......... The politicians and the Legal system has been butchering it for years............ It's only an " OLD PIECE OF PAPER as our current president has stated" This wonderful great country of America is no more, because of the corruption from the people we elect are doing this for their own personal Gain. Even our former president said: Money is power, power is money, and with this you have control............ The people who control this country called the United States have achieved what the Russian government was trying to do 70 years ago to the Russian people................ As for is Pennsylvania, I can see in the very near future it will join in with the corrupt state of New York and the corrupt state of New Jersey . So for the people in Pennsylvania, you better plan on giving up your guns ........ You will not even be able to go to Wal-Mart and buy a slingshot because your government will claim it is a...... " deadly concealable weapon"..............
      Fran
      • 1 Year Ago
      well eveyone should cary gun and shoot anybody that steps on thier freedom no matter who it is as citzens its the right thing to do.
      btauble
      • 1 Year Ago
      there goes more of our rights.
      dukesam07
      • 1 Year Ago
      Jim you're close , The DWI laws and penalties are outrageous more and more people are driving on suspended licenses and without insurance due to the harsh penalties. Interlock devices that know your exact location at all times. The Gestapo is closely behind us and coming up fast.
      steve
      • 1 Year Ago
      The trouble some part of the whole scenario is that there is about 1% of the law enforcement officers are honest hard working people with a streak of common scenes. But the other 99% have the GOD syndrome, The because you do what I say because of who I am, Don't YOU dare question me. I can drive MY car ( who the tax payers bought ) as fast as I wish on any street the laws do not apply to me.. Hell everyone understands I could go on for ever... When a cop pulls you over you must first realize he is NOT your friend and he will us everything that he can get out of your mouth against you for any reason.
        Vito
        • 1 Year Ago
        @steve
        Steve - I think you are incorrect regarding the 1%. I think the figure is much higher but still any "God cop" in an effort to help his career may plant evidence. With no witnesses what is a law abiding citizen to do? As a law abiding citizen I should be allowed to contact an attorney who can send out a witness or come out himself to make sure the cop is on the up and up. Perhaps this could be a new job market. Kind of like a witness protector. Once the witness arrives the cops can do whatever they want to the car.
      flyfisherinct
      • 1 Year Ago
      IF YOU HAVE DONE NOTHING WRONG NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT LET THEM LOOK
        Rollin T Thunder
        • 1 Year Ago
        @flyfisherinct
        Absolutely...using that logic they can enter your home as well, right? I mean, you have nothing to hide.
        seban
        • 1 Year Ago
        @flyfisherinct
        You're already lost and gone fishing. Why don't you drop your pants if you've done nothing wrong? There's where it's going.
      biker82112
      • 1 Year Ago
      "Probable Cause" is a very broad brush, and each state could have different guidelines. What if the Trooper doesn't like your looks, your demeanor, or your bumper sticker? Each may be a sufficient reason for a search in some locales.
      rtamc3
      • 1 Year Ago
      Do the residents of Penn really want this? As voters we need to elect the poeple who actually support the wishes of the people.
      • 1 Year Ago
      I would drive around Pennsylvania rather drive through it and let myself open to police harrassment
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