A recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision limits the power of police to search vehicles after pulling them over. Unless they have a warrant, officers must demonstrate both probable cause and “exigent circumstances,” such as that evidence will be lost or destroyed if a search of the vehicle is not performed. The new rule should provide Pennsylvanians with some much-needed protection from overzealous police officers.

In Commonwealth v. Keith Alexander, the court retracted its 2014 adoption of a federal rule that allowed police to search vehicles without a warrant as long as they had probable cause. If, as in Alexander’s case, police smelled marijuana in a car after pulling it over, that would have been considered sufficient to allow them to search the whole car without the driver’s permission. But the court said that the search of Alexander’s car — which discovered behind the driver’s seat a metal box containing heroin — required additional proofs to pass constitutional muster.

The new ruling prevents officers from conducting warrantless searches of automobiles based on probable cause alone. The officers must also prove the existence of “exigent circumstances,” which essentially means that an emergency situation made obtaining a warrant impracticable. A mere assertion of potential danger to the police or public or the lack of sufficient time to obtain a warrant would be insufficient.

Courts will need to determine exigent circumstances on a case-by-case basis, focusing on the specific facts. While there will be cases where the police search vehicles without a warrant, criminal defense attorneys can now raise challenges about whether exigent circumstances existed. 

The Supreme Court said that despite the lack of a clear definition of exigent circumstances, it is more important to protect Pennsylvanians from unlawful searches. “Difficulties in clarifying the scope of the exigency requirement will lead to debates about what exactly the Pennsylvania Constitution demands in a given situation. But so what?” Justice Christine Donahue wrote for the majority. We cannot give “short shift to citizens’ privacy rights,” she added.

As a criminal defense lawyer, I welcome this decision. The old rule gave police far too much power to search vehicles in disregard of the warrant requirement. My firm, Matthew R. Zatko, Attorney at Law, provides zealous defense for people accused of crimes in Somerset County, Bedford County, Cambria County and surrounding areas of Pennsylvania. If you’ve been arrested and the police searched your vehicle without a warrant, call me immediately at 814-443-1631 or contact me online. I provide a free initial consultation.