Philadelphia, May 2, 2014- The Pennsylvania Supreme court, in a 4-2 decision, has issued a ruling that police officers are not required to obtain a search warrant before searching a vehicle. This decision overturns the protections offered by the Pennsylvania state constitution as well as those enumerated in the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The court opinion, issued by Justice Seamus McCaffery concluded that, “the prerequisite for a warrantless search of a motor vehicle is probable cause to search.”
The case stemmed from a 2010 traffic stop by the Philadelphia police department, for a vehicle having dark tinted windows. The police subsequently found two pounds of marijuana under the hood of the car.
Prior to this decision police were not allowed to search a vehicle without driver consent, illegal substances in plain view or a search warrant. Drivers had the ability to refuse a search request, which would then require the officer to produce a warrant signed by a judge for the search to take place. Based on this ruling the standard to search has now been lowered to an officers belief of reasonable probable cause.
The police applauded the decision. According to Lancaster Online, New Holland Police Lt. Jonathan Heisse said, “It is a ruling that helps law enforcement as they continue to find people in possession of illegal drugs,” as reported by Brett Hambright.
However not all parties felt this was a wise decision.
In the dissent, Justice Debra McCloskey concluded that the ruling, “heedlessly contravenes over 225 years of unyielding protection against unreasonable search and seizure which our people have enjoyed as their birthright,” and went on to state that the decision was “diametrically contrary to the deep historical and legal traditions.”
A number of defense attorneys viewed the decision as extreme governmental overreach. Jeffrey Conrad, of Clymer Musser & Conrad, in a statement to Hambright, said, “It’s an expanding encroachment of government power,” and followed up by saying, “It’s a protection we had two days ago, that we don’t have today. It’s disappointing from a citizens’ rights perspective.”
Another attorney, Chris Patterson, went on record with Hambright, stating, “I am concerned that we are on a slippery slope that will eliminate personal privacy and freedom in the name of expediency for law enforcement.”
Defense attorney Christopher Lyden told Hambright that he thinks if an officer wants to search without driver consent, that they should be required to get a warrant, saying, “Judicial oversight of vehicle searches, just like residential searches, helps maintain a free society.”
This decision along with the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision we reported on last week, regarding warrantless stops based on anonymous tips, indicates a continual and steady erosion of Fourth Amendment protections nationwide.