Since April 2013 in Pennsylvania, law enforcement has only needed probable cause to search an automobile. A divided state supreme court ruled in 2013 that Pennsylvania will follow federal law which requires law enforcement only have probable cause before searching a vehicle.
Prior to the state’s High Court ruling in Commonwealth v. Gary Shiem, Pennsylvania had over 200 years of decisional law that held that probable cause as well as a search warrant or exigent circumstances were required for a vehicle search, unless the vehicle’s owner gave consent. Since the ruling in 2013, law enforcement’s ability to search vehicles based solely on probable cause has aligned the state more closely with federal law and other state laws throughout the country.
U.S. Supreme Court Rulings On Vehicle Searches
The U.S. Supreme Court has decided that, based on the fact that vehicles are inherently mobile, there can not be the same expectation of privacy as one would have as the occupant of a house. Therefore, the court has ruled the expectation of privacy in a vehicle is significantly lower than those outlined by Federal Constitutional standards and as such, only probable cause is necessary for a legal search.
What Are Exigent Circumstances?
Exigent circumstances are an exception to the 4th Amendment requirement of a warrant as a necessity for law enforcement to conduct searches and seizures. Exigent circumstances apply when law enforcement has probable cause and insufficient time to obtain a warrant.
What Does Probable Cause Mean?
Probable cause are the legal standards that apply when a police officer exercises the right to make an arrest, obtain a warrant for an arrest, and/or conduct a personal or property search. Essentially, probable cause applies when a person is confronted with facts or circumstances that would lead any reasonable person to believe that a crime has been or will be committed.
Commonwealth v. Gary Shiem
In the case of Commonwealth v. Gary Shiem, the defendant was pulled over by Philadelphia police officers because of the excessively dark tint on his vehicle’s windows. Once the vehicle stop was in progress, the officers noticed a strong odor of marijuana coming from the car. When Mr. Shinn was asked by the officers if he was in possession of anything that they needed to be concerned about, he reportedly replied, “weed.” A drug detection dog was brought to the scene and indicated that marijuana was present. When the vehicle was searched, two pounds of marijuana was discovered underneath the hood.
Search Challenged At Trial
Once the case reached trial, the defense challenged the search by alleging that there was no probable cause, nor warrant or exigent circumstances. Ultimately, the case went all the way to the PA Supreme Court which ultimately upheld the ruling of the trial court. The trial court held that an exigent circumstance existed and therefore the suppression of the search which recovered the marijuana was denied.
All of the criminal defense attorneys at DRK Lawyers are former assistant district attorneys. We understand criminal cases and defense from both sides of the courtroom. We use our trial experience and knowledge of the government’s tactics to help defend our clients every day in the state of Pennsylvania. If you are facing criminal charges, please contact our team today. There is never a charge for your initial consultation.