Pennsylvania police officers no longer need a warrant to search a citizen’s vehicle, according to a recent state Supreme Court opinion. The high court’s opinion, released Tuesday, is being called a drastic change in citizens’ rights and police powers.
Previously, citizens could refuse an officer’s request to search a vehicle. In most cases, the officer would then need a warrant — signed by a judge — to conduct the search. That’s no longer the case, according to the opinion written by Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery.
The ruling, passed on a 4-2 vote, was made in regard to an appeal from a 2010 vehicle stop in Philadelphia. Local police and legal professionals are calling the opinion “big news.”
“This is a significant change in long-standing Pennsylvania criminal law, and it is a good one,” Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman said Wednesday afternoon.
Under prior law, an officer who smells marijuana inside a car, for example, could only search the car with the driver’s consent — or if illegal substances were in plain view.
(Federal officers, like FBI or ATF agents, can search, regardless.) Now, based on the opinion, it only takes reasonable probable cause for an officer to go ahead with a search without a warrant.
“The prerequisite for a warrantless search of a motor vehicle is probable cause to search,” McCaffery writes in the opinion. “We adopt the federal automobile exception… which allows police officers to search a motor vehicle when there is probable cause to do so…”
Previously, a warrantless search was only allowed if “exigent circumstances” existed, the opinion states. “This case gives the police simpler guidelines to follow and (it) finally and clearly renders our law consistent with established federal law,” Stedman said.