On April 29, 2014, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court departed from its longstanding precedence in Pennsylvania of requiring police officers to obtain a search warrant before searching citizens’ vehicles. In Commonwealth v. Gary, 29 A.3d 804 (Pa. 2014), our Supreme Court ruled that police officers only need probable cause to search a citizen’s vehicle, and no longer need to apply for a search warrant from a judge before conducting a vehicle-search. Consequently, in the wake of Gary, police officers now have the authority to conduct warrantless searches of citizens’ vehicles based on the police officer’s subjective judgment of whether probable cause to search the vehicle exist.
Pennsylvania Supreme Court Ruled That Police No Longer Need A Warrant To Search A Citizen’s Vehicle
Prior to the decision in Gary, Pennsylvania afforded its citizens greater protections under Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution than what was afforded under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and required police officers to obtain a search warrant before searching a citizen’s vehicle, except for instances where the driver consented to a warrantless vehicle- search or exigent circumstances existed. Long before the decision handed down in Gary, the federal courts allowed warrantless searches of citizens’ vehicles as long as police officers had probable cause to conduct a search.
In Gary, Justice McCaffery opined that there is “no compelling reason to interpret Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution as providing greater protection with regard to warrantless searches of motor vehicles than does the Fourth Amendment”. The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Gary has sparked criticism from civil rights activists and criminal defense lawyers who see the Court’s decision to allow police to conduct warrantless searches of citizens’ vehicles as a major encroachment to privacy rights. On the other hand, law enforcement and prosecutors throughout Pennsylvania seems to view the Garydecision as a major victory.
It is worth noting that citizens still have the right to challenge the legality of a search of their vehicles in court. In instances where a court finds that a police officer lacked probable cause to conduct a warrantless vehicle-search, the evidence will be suppressed.
It is my belief that judicial oversight should be required before police can conduct a search of a citien’s vehicle to strike a balance between the competing interest of citizens to live in a free society and police officers’ interest in enforcing our laws. The Gary decision has definitely tipped the scales in favor of the government, and will lead to more abuses of citizens’ privacy rights by law enforcement.