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Can Police Search Your Home or Car Without a Warrant in Pennsylvania?

In short, the answer is: “PROBABLY NOT!”  Under current Pennsylvania law, police can now no longer search a vehicle unless they have two (2) things: probable cause AND exigent circumstances.

Probable Cause & Exigent Circumstances

In the year 2014, Pennsylvania underwent a drastic change in its law on allowing police officers to search a vehicle without a warrant.  In a case called Commonwealth v. Gary, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that police officers may search a vehicle if they have probable cause only.  This case overturned the longstanding rule of law which required police officers to not only have probable cause to conduct a warrantless search, but also exigent circumstancesUnder the Gary rule of law, police were able to conduct a search if they had reason to believe that a search would reveal evidence of a crime… and that was all they needed.  Now, however, police need more than just probable cause to search your car or house without a warrant.  They also need exigent circumstances.  Under a very recent case called Commonwealth v. Alexander, which was decided December 2020, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned the Gary Decision and held that police must have both probable cause AND exigent circumstances to justify a search without a warrant.

What are exigent circumstances?

The Court has not clearly defined what constitutes “exigent circumstances,” however, the Court has said that exigent circumstances requires something more than just the inherent mobility of a vehicle; in other words, there must be something else present besides the fact that the driver of the vehicle can speed off and evade police.  Something more which could rise to the level of exigent circumstances could be, for example, the destruction of evidence.  For example, let’s say that police are trying to conduct a search of a house for drugs.  Exigent circumstances that could exist would be that the drugs could be easily disposed of by flushing them down the toilet.  This would be an example of exigent circumstances and assuming police had probable cause, police would now be able to conduct a warrantless search.

What is probable cause?

Probable cause means that based on the police offer’s observations and his or her training and experience, the police officer has good reason to believe that a search (of a home, vehicle, etc.) will reveal evidence of a crime.  For example, let’s say that police stop a vehicle for speeding and when the officer approaches the driver’s side door, he or she smells the odor of an illegal substance such as PCP.  Based on the officer’s observations (and perhaps the officer’s training and experience with drugs like PCP), the officer now has reason to believe – or probable cause – that a search of the vehicle will reveal evidence of PCP.  Based on the officer’s probable cause to search under these circumstances, the officer can now search the vehicle WITHOUT A WARRANT!

Marijuana & Probable Cause

In the past, police used to be able to conduct a search without a warrant if they smelled marijuana.  That is, if the officer smelled the odor of marijuana, they now have good reason – or probable cause – to believe that a search of the area containing the odor of marijuana will reveal evidence of… marijuana! However, marijuana has now become legalized for recreational and medicinal purposes in many states and guess what… Pennsylvania is one of them!  Under the Medical Marijuana Act, it is now legal for an individual to possess marijuana if they have a valid medical marijuana prescription card.  Thus, even if police smell the odor of marijuana in, let’s say, a vehicle and now they have reason to believe there is evidence of marijuana inside the vehicle, so what!  It is now legal to have marijuana if you have a valid medical marijuana prescription, and so police must have something more than just the odor of marijuana to search the car!  If they don’t, then they have to get a warrant.

Weapons & Probable Cause

Similar to marijuana, under Pennsylvania Law, a person may lawfully carry a weapon if they have a valid license to carry a firearm and there are no other disqualifications.  Thus, if a police officer stops a vehicle and sees in plain view a weapon inside of the vehicle, this is not enough to allow the police to search the vehicle without a warrant.  After all, it is perfectly legal to carry a weapon if the driver possesses a valid license to carry a firearm.  There must be something more than just the presence of a firearm to justify a search without a warrant.

Search Warrants in General

In general, the law in Pennsylvania requires that police have a validly executed and duly signed search warrant in order to conduct a search.  This requires a police officer to fill out an application for a search warrant.  In that application, the police officer must specify what he or she wishes to search, where the search is to specifically take place and why the officer thinks that a search will reveal evidence of a crime.  Once these requirements are met, the officer must then take the warrant to a Magistrate who will review it for probable cause and if the Magistrate believes that probable cause exists, the Magistrate will sign the search warrant.  Once the search warrant is signed by the Magistrate, the warrant is now validly issued and can be served and executed by the police.  Sometimes Magistrates get it wrong though! That is, sometimes a Magistrate may review a search warrant that in fact lacks the requisite probable cause.  What’s the remedy for an unconstitutional warrant?  If that is the case, the search warrant is considered unconstitutional or unlawful, and the remedy that exists is that any items that are yielded as a result of the unconstitutional or unlawful search warrant will be deemed inadmissible in a court of law. If your rights were violated, contact our Philadelphia criminal defense attorneys for a free consultation.

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