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When can the police search a car for drugs?

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a ruling that restricts the ability of law enforcement to search a vehicle. While an office is free to search the car when they have a search warrant, there are clear limitations established for searching a car for drugs or other concerns while conducting a traffic stop.

Since a vehicle search could provide detrimental evidence against you when facing charges, it is important to know your rights.

The case of Keith Alexander

The PA Supreme Court made its ruling in December 2020 after hearing a case involving Keith Alexander. During a traffic stop, the officers smelled marijuana. They arrested Alexander, searched the vehicle and used a key found on Alexander’s keychain to unlock a metal box. When they discovered the inside of the box contained a significant amount of heroin and charged him with intent to deliver.

Although his defense argued the illegality of opening the box without a search warrant, the verdict was guilty. Upon appeal, the Supreme Court ruled against the evidence and overturned Alexander’s guilty verdict.

The Supreme Court ruling

Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court complies with the privacy afforded through the United States Constitution, but the ruling from the Alexander case clarified the need for the use of a search warrant or exigent circumstances for a police search of a vehicle. In Pennsylvania, the police must make an effort to obtain a search warrant in the absence of exigent circumstances. If a search occurs without a warrant, a defense argument could prevent the evidence from inclusion in court.

The ruling in Alexander overrules the case of Commonwealth v. Gary and re-establishes the long-standing Pennsylvania doctrine that even in light of a vehicle’s inherent mobility, a warrant will still be required prior to searching the interior contents of a motor vehicle during an otherwise ordinary traffic stop, unless exigent circumstances exist.  As such, Pennsylvania returns to the pre-Gary application of the limited automobile exception under Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, pursuant to which warrantless vehicle searches require both probable cause and exigent circumstances.

Knowing your rights can keep you from being the victim of an illegal search. However, avoiding probable cause situations is also beneficial.  When facing any criminal charges, you should always consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney like the attorneys at Kauffman & Billimoria, PLLC.