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When Can the Police Search My Car and Its Contents?

May 18, 2017

By van der Veen, Hartshorn, Levin & Lindheim

It is a well-established legal principle that law enforcement officers are permitted to search a person’s car without a warrant. However, officers can only do so when they have probable cause to believe that a crime has been or is being committed. A recent ruling helped further clarify this doctrine by holding that the containers within a car can also be searched without a warrant. This case could have significant consequences for those accused of a crime based on evidence found in their vehicle. If you were recently arrested and your car was searched, it is critical to contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer who can ensure that your rights were not violated.

Current Law

In a recently published decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court confirmed that one of the few exceptions to the requirement that police officers obtain a warrant prior to searching a person’s belongings is when the suspect is in a vehicle. The Court also clarified that this exception only applies when officers have probable cause to believe that contraband or evidence will be found in the car. For example, a police officer who smelled marijuana when he or she approached a vehicle or saw a bag of marijuana on the seat in plain view would have probable cause to believe that a crime was being committed. A suspect’s attempt to flee and the officer’s extensive experience are also relevant factors in a probable cause analysis.

The Court’s Opinion

The Superior Court also recently heard a case that questioned the extent of a warrantless car search. In the case, police officers observed a car with four occupants that was parked at night in a high crime area. After approaching the vehicle, the police were able to smell marijuana and saw a small baggie containing marijuana on the floor. After the officer asked the occupants about the bag, the driver began to crawl into the back seat, at which point the officers handcuffed each occupant and searched the car. During the search, the officers found a number of purses, all of which were searched. In one of the purses, the officer found a spoon with residue on it, a number of syringes, and a crack pipe, in addition to the defendant’s identification card. The defendant was subsequently charged with possession of drug paraphernalia, despite her argument that the evidence should be suppressed because the officers had no separate probable cause to search her purse. Although the trial court agreed with the defendant, the Superior Court overturned the ruling, stating that probable cause to search a car extended to all of the containers found therein, including purses.

Contact an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney Today

Although the court’s ruling broadens the scope of warrantless searches, there are still a number of arguments that can be raised to suppress illegally seized evidence. If your vehicle was searched and you were subsequently arrested, please contact van der Veen, Hartshorn, Levin & Lindheim in Philadelphia by calling (215) 486-0123 today.



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