Pa. police study warrantless search case
Superior Court decision granted officers right to search a vehicle during a traffic stop without first going to a district judge to obtain a warrant
By Lisa Thompson
PHILADELPHIA — A recent state Superior Court decision granted Pennsylvania police officers the right to search a vehicle during a traffic stop without first going to a district judge to obtain a search warrant.
But that ruling does not mean that law enforcement now has "free rein" to search any vehicle they have stopped for a traffic violation, District Attorney Jack Daneri said.
Police still must have probable cause to suspect that evidence of a crime will be found in a vehicle before conducting any search, he said. If the search is challenged, they must be able to articulate what that probable cause was, he said.
Previously, that probable cause evidence would have been made part of the search warrant application.
Daneri and his staff hosted a training session for area law enforcement Wednesday at Blasco Library in the wake of the Superior Court's April 29 ruling in Commonwealth v. Gary.
With the ruling, the court put state law in line with federal law, which requires only probable cause and not a search warrant based on probable cause to search a car for suspected evidence during a traffic stop, Daneri said.
The ruling is welcomed by law enforcement because it means that police no longer have to wait with a suspect vehicle, often along busy highways, while a search warrant is obtained, he said.
"It is a matter of efficiency," he said.
But with the requirement that police must have probable cause before conducting a search, "the protections against unlawful search and seizure are still there," Daneri said.
In the Gary case, Philadelphia police lawfully stopped the defendant, Shiem Gary. They searched his car after smelling marijuana in the car and after Gary indicated he had "weed" in the car and attempted to flee on foot. The search yielded two pounds of marijuana.
"We adopt the federal automobile exception to the warrant requirement, which allows police officers to search a motor vehicle when there is probable cause to do so and does not require any exigency beyond the inherent mobility of a motor vehicle," the court said.
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