PA Supreme Court: Warrantless Vehicle Searches Okay

The PA Supreme Court, in Commonwealth vs. Gary,  has reaffirmed that the “automobile exception” is a permissible exception to the warrant requirement.

This was PA law until the “automobile exception” was overturned by Com. v. White in, I think, 1997.

The 4th Amendment as interpreted by the United States Supreme Court recognizes the “automobile exception” to the warrant requirement.

Both PA and federal law require an independent showing of probable cause to search. In other words, the police officer can’t search you merely because they have probable cause to stop you for speeding. And police are generally free to seek consent to search.

Here’s the Court’s Opinion:

http://www.pacourts.us/assets/opinions/Supreme/out/J-5-2013oajc%20-%201017924602181959.pdf?cb=1

But, what if you are just a passenger in the vehicle?
Com. v. Gary (the new case) does not change the law with respect to patting down a driver or passenger. The “Terry Frisk” analysis set forth in Terry v. Ohio remains the law in PA. However, if contraband is found inside of a vehicle the driver and/or passengers may be arrested and then searched incident to arrest.
The “wingspan” doctrine permits police to search any area within the “wingspan” of a person they are arresting. In other words, if contraband is within the reach of another person in the vehicle, they, too, can be charged.
Otherwise, an officer can only “search” a person incident to arrest or with consent. Police use the phrase “pat down for officer safety” but that doesn’t exist in the law. To pat someone down for weapons requires “articulable facts that the individual is armed and dangerous.”
If you, or someone you know, is navigating these rough legal waters, we can help. Call us and schedule a consultation.

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