Pennsylvania police officers no longer need a warrant to search a citizen’s vehicle, according to a recent state Supreme Court opinion.

The high court’s opinion, released Tuesday, is being called a drastic change in citizens’ rights and police powers.

Previously, citizens could refuse an officer’s request to search a vehicle. In most cases, the officer would then need a warrant — signed by a judge — to conduct the search.

That’s no longer the case, according to the opinion written by Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery.

The ruling, passed on a 4-2 vote, was made in regard to an appeal from a 2010 vehicle stop in Philadelphia.

Local police and legal professionals are calling the opinion “big news.”

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

Under prior law, an officer who smells marijuana inside a car, for example, could only search the car with the driver’s consent — or if illegal substances were in plain view.

(Federal officers, like FBI or ATF agents, can search, regardless.)

Now, based on the opinion, it only takes reasonable probable cause for an officer to go ahead with a search without a warrant.

“The prerequisite for a warrantless search of a motor vehicle is probable cause to search,” McCaffery writes 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...”

Previously, a warrantless search was only allowed if “exigent circumstances” existed, the opinion states.

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

“It is a ruling that helps law enforcement as they continue to find people in possession of illegal drugs,” New Holland police Lt. Jonathan Heisse said Wednesday.

While police rejoice over what’s been a lasting issue, citizens might not be as thrilled.

“It’s an expanding encroachment of government power,” defense attorney Jeffrey Conrad said Wednesday morning, while reviewing the 62-page opinion. “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 for law enforcement.”

Shiem Gary filed the Philadelphia appeal, arguing that police didn’t have probable cause to search his vehicle on Jan. 15, 2010. Officers found two pounds of marijuana stashed under the vehicle’s hood.

Lancaster defense attorney Michael Winters noted that police still need good reasons to pull over a vehicle and conduct a search.

“This does not mean that they may search every vehicle they stop,” Winters said. “They must still develop probable cause before they are permitted to search your vehicle without a warrant.”

In the Gary case, probable cause for the vehicle stop was window tint the officers believed to be illegal. Officers smelled marijuana and asked about it; Shiem then told an officer there was “weed” in the vehicle. A search ensued.

“This case does not eliminate the need for the police to have probable cause to search,” Stedman said.

The district attorney said the ruling puts Pennsylvania in line with federal law and many other states.

Locals stressed that probable cause to stop a vehicle does not equate with probable cause to search it.

A driver can still refuse if an officer asks for consent to search a car. The officer can then only search if he/she has probable cause to do so, or a warrant. A driver refusing consent, alone, does not give a police officer probable cause to search.

Christopher Lyden, another local defense lawyer, believes if an officer wants to search a vehicle without consent, they should have to get approval from a judge — as they do in searches of homes.

“Judicial oversight of vehicle searches, just like residential searches,” he said, “helps maintain a free society.”

Chief Supreme Court Justice Ronald D. Castille and Justices J. Michael Eakin and Thomas G. Saylor joined McCaffery in the majority.

Justices Debra McCloskey Todd and Max Baer opposed it.




Brett Hambright is a Lancaster Newspapers staff writer who covers crime and the Lancaster County court system. He can be reached at bhambright@lnpnews.com or (717) 481-6026. You can also follow @BrettHambright on Twitter.

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