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The Default Rule: Warrants Are Required to Search Vehicles

On December 22, 2020, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued an opinion, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Alexander, requiring law enforcement to secure a warrant prior to searching automobiles, unless probable cause and exigent circumstances exist. Previously a warrant was not required to search an automobile after a traffic stop, as law enforcement only needed probable cause.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court acknowledged that Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution affords greater protection to Pennsylvanians than the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Our “Constitution prioritizes the protection of privacy rights caused by the unreasonable search above the need to present incriminating evidence in court and to assist law enforcement efforts.”

Obtaining a warrant is now the “default rule,” and if a police officer conducts a warrantless search, then courts will be required to determine whether exigent circumstances existed. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court did not offer a definition of exigency that will apply in all situations, but stated that the totality of the circumstances must be considered. Examples of exigent circumstances include when someone is in danger of physical harm, or where there is fear of destruction of evidence, and may include other emergency situations. Furthermore, motorists should be aware that providing consent to search one’s vehicle also is an exception to the warrant requirement.

As a result of the decision, “warrantless vehicle searches require both probable cause and exigent circumstances; one without the other is insufficient.” If your vehicle was stopped and searched by law enforcement, then contact one of our attorneys today.

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