Requirements in PA for a Warrantless Search of a Motor Vehicle

In Commonwealth v. Gary, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court addressed the requirements in the Commonwealth for a warrantless search of a motor vehicle. After consideration of relevant federal and state law, the Court held that, police officers are now allowed to search a motor vehicle without a warrant when there is probable cause to do so. They no longer need to rely on any emergency beyond the inherent mobility of a motor vehicle in order to justify the search.

The facts leading to this decision were as follows:
On January 15, 2010, Philadelphia Police Officers were on patrol in a marked car when they observed the Defendant driving an SUV with heavily tinted windows. Believing that the level of tint in the windows violated Pennsylvania’s Motor Vehicle Code, the officers stopped and approached the SUV. As they did so, they noticed the smell of marijuana coming from the passenger and driver sides of the vehicle. When one of the officers asked if there was anything in his vehicle that the officers needed to know about, the Defendant responded that he had some weed. The officers removed the Defendant from the SUV, placed him in their police cruiser, and summoned the canine unit. As the canine unit began their search of the SUV, the Defendant got out of the police cruiser and ran from the scene. The officers apprehended the Defendant and returned him to the police cruiser. The search of the Defendant’s SUV yielded approximately two pounds of marijuana, found under the front hood in a bag lodged next to the air filter. The Defendant was arrested and charged with possession of a controlled substance and possession with intent to deliver.

In Philadelphia Municipal Court, the Defendant moved to suppress the marijuana recovered from his vehicle, arguing that the warrantless search was illegal because it was not supported by probable cause and was not necessitated by exigent circumstances. Following the hearing, the court held that the warrantless search was valid because it was justified by both probable cause and exigent circumstances. More specifically, the court held that probable cause was strong based on the plain smell of the marijuana emanating from the SUV. With respect to exigent circumstances, the court found that police had no advance warning that Defendant’s vehicle would be stopped or that there would be probable cause to search the vehicle for contraband. While the court determined that Defendant was in custody and that the police were in control of his vehicle at the time of the search, these determinations did not undermine the court’s finding of exigency. Accordingly, the Municipal Court denied Defendant’s suppression motion, and the marijuana was admitted into evidence. Following a stipulated trial, the Defendant was found guilty.

Defendant appealed to the Court of Common Pleas. Following oral argument, the Court denied the appeal. The Court observed that a warrantless search of an automobile is permissible where there is both probable cause to search and exigent circumstances necessitating a search. In finding probable cause to search, the Court noted the plain smell of the marijuana emanating from the vehicle, as well as Defendant’s flight from the scene. In addition, the court concluded that the following factors constituted exigent circumstances: (1) the lack of advance warning to police that Defendant’s vehicle would be stopped and would be part of a criminal investigation; (2) the need for the officers to act quickly to seize contraband from the vehicle; and (3) the determination that Defendant was not under arrest before the search occurred and thus might have been permitted to return to his vehicle and drive away with the contraband.

Defendant appealed to the Superior Court, contending that the warrantless search of his vehicle was unlawful because it was conducted in the absence of any recognized exception to the warrant requirement. The Superior Court reversed the trial court’s order, and remanded the case back to the Court of Common Pleas. Evidence for a trial of the seized marijuana was suppressed.

The Supreme Court granted the Commonwealth’s petition for allowance of appeal to address the following issues, as stated by the Commonwealth:

  1. Were the police permitted to conduct a warrantless search of defendant’s SUV for marijuana where, during a traffic stop, they could smell marijuana emanating from the vehicle, defendant informed police that he had marijuana in the SUV, and the officers had not had the opportunity to obtain a warrant prior to stopping the vehicle?
  2. Should this Court adopt the federal automobile exception to the warrant requirement?

Following a review by our Supreme Court, it was clear that Pennsylvania had no consistent, clear, and readily applicable expression of the automobile exception to the warrant requirement. Consequently, local and state police officers had no guidance from the Court about the circumstances under which the warrantless motor vehicle search is permissible in the Commonwealth. In contrast, the U.S. Supreme Court has set forth a bright line rule for the automobile exception: police officers may search a motor vehicle if they have probable cause for the search.

Our Court held that the decision in cases involving the warrantless search of a motor vehicle in the Commonwealth have often turned on small details in the midst of a complex factual scenario, details which have been given varying emphasis over time by different members of the Court. This made it difficult, if not impossible, for police officers in the field to determine how the Court would rule in motor vehicle search and seizure cases, the circumstances of which are almost endlessly variable. To provide greater uniformity in the assessment of individual cases and more consistency with regard to the admissibility of the fruits of vehicular searches based on probable cause, the Court decided that a more easily applied rule ­ such as that of the federal automobile exception ­ was called for.

Now, the prerequisite for a warrantless search of a motor vehicle is probable cause to search; no exigency beyond the inherent mobility of a motor vehicle is required. The Court held that the consistent and firm requirement for probable cause was a sufficient safeguard against illegal searches of motor vehicles, whose inherent mobility and the endless factual circumstances that such mobility engenders constitute a per se exigency allowing police officers to make the determination of probable cause in the first instance in the field.

One factor that may be overlooked in the analysis of this case is the cause for the initial stop in the first place. ­ the vehicle’s tinted windows. Tinted windows are often a pretext used by police officers to stop a vehicle when they have no other reason to do so other than their own suspicion. Drivers in this Commonwealth with tinted windows put themselves at risk for extra scrutiny by police officers merely because of the tinted windows.

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