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Can Philly Police Search My Car Without a Warrant?


1/19/2021

If you have been arrested in Philadelphia after a traffic stop and a warrantless search of your vehicle, you may be eligible to have your charges dismissed. When it comes to privacy protections, Pennsylvania’s Constitution has and continues to provide more protections for its citizens than the United States Constitution. The 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution enumerates that all persons, papers, houses, and effects are protected from unreasonable search and seizure. Like the 4th Amendment, Pennsylvania’s Constitution enumerates the same privacy right in Article 1 Section 8.

Philly police typically need a warrant to search a vehicle. A search where a police officer did not have a warrant based on probable cause to search the area or seize an item is typically presumed invalid. Generally, the warrant must be issued by an impartial judicial officer prior to conducting a search, and one that does not particularly describe the area to be searched or the items to be seized is insufficient.

Exceptions to the Warrant Requirement

While citizens’ right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures is protected by the state and federal constitutions, there are exceptions to this general rule, including:

  • Consent – If you give Philly police consent to search your vehicle, even where the police do not inform you of your right to refuse a search, they may conduct such a search without a warrant. Consent must be given voluntarily, and if the cop believes in good faith that a person giving consent has the apparent authority to do so, the search will likely be held as falling within this exception.
  • Plain View Doctrine – This exception states that police officers may seize items in plain view if they have probable cause to believe it is contraband. While the United States Supreme Court has not provided a definitive statement as to the plain smell doctrine, Pennsylvania courts have previously held that odors, such as that of marijuana, emanating from a vehicle give an officer probable cause to search a vehicle.
  • Search Incident to a Lawful Arrest – The purpose of this exception is to prevent the destruction of evidence and to disarm an arrestee that might pose a danger to the police and others. However, this exception allows police to search the arrestee’s vehicle if he is unrestrained and within reaching distance of a passenger compartment during the search or there is a reasonable belief that the vehicle contains evidence of the crime for which the person is being arrested.
  • Exigent Circumstances – This exception allows police to search a vehicle without a warrant where a police officer believes there is contraband. Explained below, for a Philly cop to search your vehicle, they need probable cause and exigent circumstances.
  • Motor Vehicle Exception – The federal automobile exception to the warrant requirement no longer applies in Philadelphia. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a person has a diminished expectation of privacy in a vehicle since they operate on public roads. Additionally, a vehicle can be easily moved to a different jurisdiction before police can obtain a warrant. This has created an exception where a vehicle can be stopped if there is probable cause or reasonable suspicions that a crime has occurred. The police may search the car and passenger compartments but may not search the passengers absent probable cause or consent to do so.

Unreasonable Search and Seizure in Pennsylvania

Commonwealth v. Gary was a 2014 case in which Pennsylvania’s highest court adopted the federal motor vehicle exception to the warrant requirement for search and seizure. This meant that police officers were now able to search vehicles when there was probable cause to do so and did not require some exigent circumstance beyond the “inherent mobility” of a vehicle.

In Gary, when the defendant was subjected to a traffic stop due to his heavily-tinted windows in violation of Pennsylvania law, the police officer conducting the stop smelled marijuana. Upon the police officer asking the defendant if there was anything in the car that he should know about, the defendant responded that he had marijuana. The officer put the defendant in a patrol car and searched the vehicle with a K-9. Two pounds of marijuana were found, and the defendant was arrested and charged with possession of a controlled substance and possession with intent to deliver narcotics. When the defendant moved to suppress the marijuana on the grounds that it was found following an illegal search, the court ruled that the search valid. The “plain smell,” like the plain view doctrine, gave police probable cause to perform a search. Additionally, the court stated that the police could not have known that the vehicle would be stopped or that there would be probable cause to search it. The police needed to act quickly to secure the contraband and, because the defendant was not under arrest at the time of the search, he could have freely been permitted to walk back to his vehicle and drive away with the marijuana. The probable cause and these exigent circumstances provided sufficient grounds for a warrantless search.

In December of 2020, the Supreme Court overruled Gary in Commonwealth v. Alexander. Here the police officers smelled marijuana during a routine traffic stop. Upon smelling marijuana, the police officers removed the passengers from the vehicle and conducted a search. The search yielded a metal box that the police officer unlocked with keys taken from the defendant while he was detained. In the box was marijuana, and the defendant was charged with possession with intent to deliver narcotics. In its decision, the Supreme Court overruled Gary and established new requirements for a warrantless search of a vehicle to be legally valid.

Under the decision in Alexander, in order for a vehicle search to be valid, the police must have probable cause and exigent circumstances must exist. Additionally, the case invalidates any good faith exception that could have permitted otherwise illegal searches provided the officers were able to show that they believed they were acting in accordance with the law.

Call Us Today to Speak with a Philly Criminal Defense Lawyer

If you believe you have been subjected to a warrantless vehicle search in violation of Pennsylvania’s Constitution, then call Philadelphia criminal defense attorney Lauren Wimmer at Wimmer Criminal Defense Law. Attorney Lauren Wimmer has years of experience and proven success in defending clients in a variety of criminal matters including illegal stops and searches involving vehicles. Call Wimmer Criminal Defense Law at (215) 712-1212 or fill out the online form to schedule a consultation and learn more about how Lauren Wimmer can help you fight your Philly criminal charges.