In a shocking decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that police officers no longer need a warrant to search a vehicle.  The high court’s opinion is being called a drastic cut to citizens’ rights and a boost to police power.

Previously, Pennsylvania citizens or anyone in Pennsylvania could refuse an officer’s request to search their vehicle and in most cases, the officer would then need to obtain a warrant.  Now, the ruling, passed 4-2, erases all of that.  The ruling was in response to an appeal from a 2010 vehicle stop in Philadelphia.

Local police professionals are calling the opinion “big”.

“This is a significant change in long-standing Pennsylvania criminal law, and it is a good one,” Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman said.

Under previous law, an officer could only search a person’s vehicle with consent or if something was in plain view.  Now, it only takes probable cause to search a vehicle, no warrant necessary.

“The prerequisite for a warrantless search of a motor vehicle is probable cause to search,” the majority wrote in the opinion, “We adopt the federal automobile exception… which allows police officers to search a motor vehicle when there is probable cause to do so…”

Federal officials, such as the FBI, have policies only requiring probable cause.  Under previous state law, a warrantless search was only allowed under “exigent circumstances”.

“This case gives the police simpler guidelines to follow and (it) finally and clearly renders our law consistent with established federal law,” Stedman said.

While police hail the ruling, citizens and rights groups are not excited.

“It’s an expanding encroachment of government power,” defense attorney Jeffrey Conrad said, “It’s a protection we had two days ago, that we don’t have today. It’s disappointing from a citizens’ rights perspective.”

Christopher Patterson, another veteran defense lawyer, said: “I am concerned that we are on a slippery slope that will eliminate personal privacy and freedom in the name of expediency…”

Officers must now only have probable cause and that can be as simple as window tint, smells, what they deem as odd behavior, etc.  Drivers are still allowed to refuse if an officer requests consent to search a vehicle.  Probable cause to stop a vehicle and probable cause to search a vehicle can be two different things.  A driver refusing consent is not proper probable cause.  Probable cause is simply a reasonable basis to believe a crime may have been committed and that evidence is present at the place to be searched.

“Judicial oversight of vehicle searches, just like residential searches,” Christopher Lyden, another defense lawyer, said, “helps maintain a free society.”

Chief Supreme Court Justice Ronald D. Castille, Justices J. Michael Eakin, Thomas G. Saylor, and Seamus McCaffery were the majority.  Justices Debra McCloskey Todd and Max Baer dissented.


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