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A Landmark Case Provides Greater Protection From Vehicle Searches

December 23, 2021

By van der Veen, Hartshorn, Levin & Lindheim

It was once generally known that a police officer could search a vehicle on the roadside if they had probable cause that a crime was being committed, or was about to be committed. The probable cause requirement is a protection provided by the Fourth Amendment, preventing police from simply searching any vehicle they wish. Not even one year ago though, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court made a decision in a landmark case that will make it easier for defendants to challenge the grounds for a search and potentially help them have the charges dismissed.

Commonwealth v. Alexander

In 2016, Philadelphia police stopped a man, who was driving with a passenger at the time. The officer smelled marijuana and the man admitted that he and the passenger had just consumed the substance. The officer placed him and the passenger in the police cruiser while they conducted a search of the vehicle. After unlocking a metal box found behind the driver’s seat, the officer found several bundles of heroin. The driver was subsequently charged with possession with intent to distribute heroin.

The driver filed a motion to suppress the evidence of heroin based on the grounds that it was an illegal search. The court denied his motion, stating that the officer had probable cause. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, though, ruled that Article 1, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution provides greater protection from unreasonable searches than the Fourth Amendment. Under this section of law, there must be an exigent, or pressing, circumstance to search a vehicle without a warrant and that in the driver’s case, no such circumstance applied.

What is an Exigent Circumstance?

An exigent circumstance is one that is pressing, or urgent. Under the Fourth Amendment, the fact that a vehicle is mobile and a motorist could simply drive away while an officer obtained a warrant is enough of an exigent circumstance. Under the Pennsylvania Constitution though, it is not. Law enforcement must have probable cause, and another exigent circumstance in order to conduct a search. Without both of those elements, law enforcement must secure the vehicle and obtain a warrant before they can conduct a search.

The Pennsylvania Constitution provides great protections for residents in the state that add to the protections provided under federal law. The law is certainly not new. However, the fact that the Supreme Court has recently shone light on it may bring it to the forefront of cases involving searches, giving people throughout the state a better chance of beating their charges.

Call Our Criminal Defense Lawyer in Philadelphia Today

Even with the recent landmark case, law enforcement officers assume that people do not know the law, or the rights provided to them. At van der Veen, Hartshorn, Levin & Lindheim, our Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer will inform you of those rights and create a solid case that will give you the best chance of a positive outcome. Call us today at (215) 486-0123 or fill out our online form to schedule a consultation and to learn more about your legal options.



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