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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?



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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  • 438 Comments
      Joe
      • 11 Months Ago
      I'm from Scranton and its as corrupt as it ever was with no end in sight. It will also be one of the states that will sell out its residents for the almighty dollar. Picture a city with very high unemployment and the Saturn auto company come in and wants to build a plant there and the Chamber of Commerce tells them there is no room. They could have renovated the slum where Capital records once was and made a big difference. Just to let you know our idiot vice president Joe Biden is from green ridge and Hillary Clinton's dad once managed the silk mill were women had to put up with sexual harassment for years just to keep their jobs. On another note, if the end if the world was coming next Monday you could move to Scranton and miss it by 20 years!!!!! Political and union corruption, entitlement attitude and the uneducated masses have sunk this ship long time ago.
      1
      • 11 Months Ago
      Yes your right are going, and this Government wants your right to be removed "Wake Up America"
      rozner43
      • 11 Months Ago
      Ever since the Berlin Wall came down, this country has become more, and more Communist.
        RXTOXICWASTE
        • 11 Months Ago
        @rozner43
        You can thank BHO for that.
          junior
          • 11 Months Ago
          @RXTOXICWASTE
          Really? He didn't start the NSA spying, he didn't start Homeland Security, he didn't sign the Patriot Act first, so who do we really have to thank?
        ladkraemer
        • 11 Months Ago
        @rozner43
        As a Vet I agree!
      Rick
      • 11 Months 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
      • 11 Months 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.
      Fran
      • 11 Months 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.
      RICHARD
      • 11 Months Ago
      Listen up Left Wingers & Liberals... if you all have nothing to hide, why worry about it ?
        no7mk1
        • 11 Months Ago
        @RICHARD
        Richard, can we just call you Dick?
        Tia
        • 11 Months Ago
        @RICHARD
        Mom.... Richard's smoking crack again!
      Brad
      • 11 Months Ago
      Any police office can search my car any time, because I do not have any thing to fear. The ones that are worring about the search are the illegals, carring drugs , guns, and so forth. So let them search and may be they will be savg lives some where along the line.
        plewdawg
        • 11 Months Ago
        @Brad
        That is not the point.
        papajokr
        • 11 Months Ago
        @Brad
        Brad, how about freedom of speech.? Since you aren't going to say anything untoward why do you need that one either?
        Malcolm Kinley
        • 11 Months Ago
        @Brad
        Well Brad wait for the day they come to your door .Walk in your house and start searching will you be as quick to say yes to that .
        rick238
        • 11 Months Ago
        @Brad
        Brad. You are missing the point. PRIVACY!! This is your car and you have a right to require anyone that wants to search it to have a warrent. Cops have a lot of power and this just increases the power for their benefit not yours. The computer in your car will be the next search they want without a warrent. How about a patdown of your passengers. Is that OK with you? Cops gone wild in my view.
      Fred
      • 11 Months Ago
      To much power, they already record licenses plates and store records of what time the car was parked and where and if it's stolen. Hilter comes to mind, freedom don't. I carry nothing in my car to be ashamed of but don't make the mistake of thinking your going to search it because I ran a red light.
        katona
        • 11 Months Ago
        @Fred
        Hey Fred, It's ALWAYS been legal to run your plate and write down where your vehicle is, it's called the PLAIN SIGHT Exemption, leave your blinds open and it's LEGAL for the POLICE to look in your windows also. Get over it. If you don't want your vehicle searched? Grab your ID and registeration, step out with hands in plain sight, throw keys on sear and lock the doors! No cop is going to open it. Call your wife or kids to bring you another set of keys when the stop is over, and drive away...
      rlsaunders115
      • 11 Months Ago
      Hope that statistics are kept to ensure that this doesn't result in an extra offense added to the all too often crime of "driving while black". Anything that allows for the potential of personal prejudices of law-enforcement officers to be brought to bear on individual citizens needs to be carefully tracked.
      WCS
      • 11 Months Ago
      Stalin America
      no7mk1
      • 11 Months Ago
      what's the difference between God and a cop.....God doesn't think he's a cop....
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