In a major victory for state law enforcement, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Tuesday broadened the power of the police to conduct warrantless motor vehicle searches.
At issue in Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Gary was a 2010 traffic stop in Philadelphia where the officers claimed to detect the smell of marijuana coming from the vehicle. The resulting search turned up two pounds of the drug. According to the suspect, Shiem Gary, his right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure under Article One, Section Eight of the Pennsylvania Constitution, which largely matches the text of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, was violated by this warrantless search of his vehicle.
Pointing to previous state court rulings, Gary argued that while the U.S. Supreme Court does allow for warrantless car searches based only on "probable cause," the Pennsylvania high court has imposed additional restrictions on law enforcement under the state constitution that count in his favor. For example, if Pennsylvania police are going to search a car without a warrant, they need both probable cause and an "exigent circumstance," such as evidence in "plain sight" inside the car, or a threat posed to officers or the public. The U.S. Supreme Court, by contrast, requires only probable cause for warrantless car searches in identical scenarios under the Fourth Amendment.
In its ruling this week, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed that its previous decisions in this area have been a "departure" from the federal standard. But the court did not see that as a good thing. Instead, it rejected what it called the state's "fractured jurisprudence" in order to adopt "the federal automobile exception [to the Fourth Amendment], which requires only a finding of probable cause, and no exigency beyond the inherent mobility of a motor vehicle, to support a warrantless vehicle search."
In effect, Pennsylvania has adopted a narrower standard and will no longer offers its residents and visitors greater protection against warrantless car searches by the police.