The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently held that despite decades of precedent, a warrant is no longer needed for an officer to search your car.
There was a front page article about this in the Pocono Record last week in which I am quoted. Here’s the article:
Police in Pennsylvania can search your vehicle without a warrant, according to a ruling handed down by the state’s Supreme Court. All they need is probable cause.
Law enforcement considers it just another tool in its arsenal to fight crime. Others believe it erodes privacy rights under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects citizens’ property against unreasonable searches and seizures.
It’s referred to as the “motor vehicle exemption.”
The state Supreme Court justices agreed to adopt the federal standard of allowing a warrantless search of a motor vehicle, whether or not there are exigent or urgent circumstances. The only thing police require is probable cause.
In the past, police could only conduct a warrantless search if there were exigent circumstances, such as a motorist not in custody during a stop who has an opportunity to flee with evidence or destroy it.
Otherwise, police had to secure time-consuming search warrants from judges, a process that increased the chance the subject might flee.
“It seems the changes for us as law enforcement are the timing aspect during a traffic stop, when there is a potential for evidence to be destroyed,” Pennsylvania state police spokesman Maria Finn said.
It’s not an earth-shattering change, Stroud Area Regional Police Capt. Brian Kimmins said.
“You still need probable cause, the same probable cause you need to apply for a search warrant, which you have to apply for in court.” he said.
Kimmins still sees his department operating with search warrants and continuing to seize vehicles to search under more controlled conditions. State police are reviewing the decision and working on guidance for its troopers, Finn said.
“However, probable cause is still probable cause. Our troopers will still need to have probable cause before conducting a search-and-seizure of a vehicle, say on a traffic stop. The trooper must articulate the probable cause in an affidavit or attribute it in a report,” she said.
The Supreme Court’s new guidelines shift the burden in some cases of determining probable cause from a judge to a police officer or trooper. A mistake can be costly.
“There are certainly ramifications if it’s a bad search,” Finn said. “The defendant could seek to suppress the search and seizure, if applicable, or even sue the department.”
The Supreme Court justices are not living in reality, according to one Stroudsburg defense attorney.
“The problem with a lot of these justices is they don’t deal with real life and never worked in the trenches,” lawyer Michael Ventrella of Fisher & Fisher said. “They have this idealized notion that the police are never wrong and never abuse their discretion.”
When Ventrella moved to Pennsylvania 15 years ago, he was astounded at the number of individual privacy rights Pennsylvania had compared to his liberal-leaning former home state of Massachusetts. But, he said, that’s eroded over time.
“Over the past 15 years, the courts have whittled it away,” he said.
Stare Decisis need not apply for today’s top-level of the judicial branch. What matters is being a pandering, partisan, politician–who happens to wear a robe.
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