The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled recently that police are allowed to search vehicles without a warrant. Meanwhile, the state General Assembly is advancing a bill to grant police authority to arrest those with “secret compartments” in their vehicles.
In a 4 to 2 decision weeks ago, the state Supreme Court decided that police could conduct searches of vehicles based solely on probable cause, or an officer’s reasonable belief that the vehicle contained illegal goods or evidence of a crime. The new standard puts the state in line with the federal law, which allows warrantless searches of vehicles.
Officers in the Keystone State were previously required to obtain a warrant prior to searching a vehicle unless the car’s owner gave consent for the search.
Writing for the majority in the ruling, Justice Seamus McCaffery said the probable-cause requirement for a search is “a strong and sufficient safeguard against illegal searches,” and will ensure that Pennsylvania officers adhere to a “uniform standard for a warrantless search of a motor vehicle, applicable in federal and state court, to avoid unnecessary confusion, conflict and inconsistency in this often-litigated area.”
Justice Debra McCloskey Todd, in a dissenting opinion, said the court was “eviscerating” longtime privacy protections by embracing the “diluted federal automobile exemption.”
The majority decision “heedlessly contravenes over 225 years of unyielding protection against unreasonable search and seizure which our people have enjoyed as their birthright,” Justice Todd added.
Civil liberties groups agreed. Dropping the demand for a search warrant is a major boost to police authority, said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the Pennsylvania ACLU.
“I think getting a warrant is significant because it is one more deterrent against bad police behavior,” Shuford told the PA Independent. “There was really no reason for the court to overturn the law. We have a long history of strong protections for individual rights in Pennsylvania.”