It is a topic that has garnered a lot of attention. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that police officers in the state no longer need a search warrant to search your car. Now, all an officer needs if probable cause.
You can always refuse if an officer asks to search your vehicle. What happens after that, is what has changed. Before the ruling, if you did not agree to a search a police officer more often than not had to get a search warrant from a judge. Now, all an officer needs if probable cause.
“Seeing drugs in plain view, odors of drugs, furtive movements, visibly seeing firearms, air fresheners around, in a drug traffic corridor, combined with seeing drug packaging materials around, seeing baggies, a scale,” said York County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Tim Barker. “It’s not one set formula. It’s looking at the totality of all the evidence, the totality of all the circumstances, and if they equal to: yes a crime probably is afoot,” said Barker.
Criminal Defense Attorney Steven Breit worries about taking out that extra filter. “You now leave out a neutral and detached Magisterial District Justice from reviewing an affidavit of probable cause, and making their own finding, as to whether the officer has established sufficient probable cause,” said Breit.
Barker says the new procedure will make the job of law enforcement easier. “You had to just immobilize the vehicle and get a search warrant, which took quite a bit of time. How is it less of an intrusion to go ahead and seize a vehicle, immobilize it, not search it, just keep it there in place, go off and get a warrant, come back and then search,” said Barker.
Some concerns have centered around whether or not officers will use this to abuse their power.
“This did not just say all of a sudden say now we can just go ahead and rummage through cars. Absolutely not. Probable cause if required,” said Barker.
“Anytime you give a police officer or any law enforcement authority or certain powers, there is always the chance for abuse. Police officers are human beings subject to the same fallacies and faults that we have. And certainly a savvy police officer can conjure up probable cause which hereto for had not existed,” said Breit. “With probable cause to search your car though, you are also leaving the window for all sorts of other searches to flow there from. Consider the person who has a smart phone in their car, a personal computer, a checkbook, a laptop, any of these devices that we carry in our car are now going to be subject to search and seizure.”
People can still challenge the search of their car, and whether there was probable cause.
“They can always challenge whether or not there was probable cause. You must have it. And if a search was conducted without probable cause, the evidence will be suppressed,” said Barker.
“Certainly you can still challenge the search of your car down the road, but this is after you have been arrested, and subject to prosecution,” said Breit.