Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court has ruled police officers in the Commonwealth are no longer required to obtain a warrant prior to searching a vehicle, a decision that essentially overturns the protections enumerated in the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and in Pennsylvania’s own state constitution.
Yesterday, Justice Seamus McCaffery issued the court’s opinion, stemming from a 2010 Philadelphia police department traffic stop of a man for having dark tinted windows, who was later found to be hiding two pounds of marijuana under the hood of his vehicle.
In a 4-2 vote, the court decided “the prerequisite for a warrantless search of a motor vehicle is probable cause to search.”
Previously, as explained by Lancaster Online, police were not allowed to search a vehicle unless a driver consented, “or if the illegal substances were in plain view.”
“Now, based on the opinion, it only takes reasonable probable cause for an officer to go ahead with the search without a warrant,” writes Brett Hambright.
Not surprisingly, police are ecstatic.
“It is a ruling that helps law enforcement as they continue to find people in possession of illegal drugs,” said New Holland Police Lt. Jonathan Heisse, reports Hambright.
However, in her dissenting opinion, Justice Debra McCloskey Todd rightly noted the ruling “heedlessly contravenes over 225 years of unyielding protection against unreasonable search and seizure which our people have enjoyed as their birthright.” Todd also called the decision “diametrically contrary to the deep historical and legal traditions” of Pennsylvania, according toAssociated Press.
Several defense attorneys also view the court’s ruling as a monumental government overreach that could negatively impact the normal, day-to-day lives of ordinary citizens.
“It’s an expanding encroachment of government power,” Jeffrey Conrad, a defense attorney with the law firm Clymer Musser & Conrad told Hambright today regarding the court’s final opinion. “It’s a protection we had two days ago, that we don’t have today. It’s disappointing from a citizens’ rights perspective.”
“I am concerned,” another defense attorney, Christopher Patterson, expressed to Hambright, “that we are on a slippery slope that will eliminate personal privacy and freedom in the name of expediency for law enforcement.”
Another lawyer clarified that the ruling does not grant police the authority to search vehicles arbitrarily.
“This does not mean that they may search every vehicle they stop,” Mike Winters with the law firm McMahon & Winters said. “They must still develop probable cause before they are permitted to search your vehicle without a warrant.”