Pennsylvania Police Gain Broader Powers To Search Vehicles

Court ruling says police can search a car based on probable cause alone

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."

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 and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.

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