In the case of Commonwealth v. Gery, decided on April 29, 2014, Philly police pulled over a SUV because they believed the tint of the windows exceeded the permissible tint level for PA. They noticed the smell of weed coming from the vehicle and asked if there was anything in the vehicle which they “need to know about”. The driver says some weed, and the cops got a dog, searched the vehicle and found 2 pounds of marijuana under the hood.
Justice McCaffery wrote in his exceptionally long opinion:
“We adopt the federal automobile exception to the warrant requirement, which allows police officers to search a motor vehicle when there is probable cause to do so and does not require any exigency beyond the inherent mobility of a motor vehicle…..The consistent and firm requirement for probable cause is a strong and sufficient safeguard against illegal searches of motor vehicles, whose inherent mobility and the endless factual circumstances that such mobility engenders constitute a per se exigency allowing police officers to make the determination of probable cause in the first instance in the field.”
In English, this means that, if you are pulled over by a cop and he “reasonably” believes that enough facts “exist” to prove that you are committing a crime (ie. smells weed in your car, etc.), he or she now has the right to search your vehicle WITHOUT getting a warrant to do so. This means that, cops can search your car before going to a judge to request issuance of a legal warrant because those officers simply believe you committed a crime in some fashion. Tell me, doesn’t that raise the hair on the back of your neck?
I have had the distinct pleasure of being involved in a day-long vehicle search by some local police in my younger years when warrants were required. My friend was driving with a blown headlight and was rightfully stopped. After securing the warrant based upon the “reasonable” belief of the officer that we robbed a store, not to mention after several officers nearly stripped the car, nothing was found. 22 hours and a blown weekend later AND after intense questioning regarding issues we knew nothing about, my friend and I were released. Ultimately, my friend received an apology letter indicating his vehicle was mistaken for the actual vehicle in question because the officer typed in some “incorrect information”. But what if they DID find something? A joint or a bowl? What would have happened? Would that search been “justified” even though the suspicion was based on a robbery? Under this ruling, at least, you won’t have to wait for a judge to sign a warrant for the police to search your vehicle.
In my opinion, it opens the door to way too much potential abuse of power. Imagine you get pulled over for a speeding violation and are smoking a clove cigarette, does that open the door to “reasonable” probable cause? Or if you tell the officer you want your attorney present before a search occurs, what then? Say an officer drives by your home and you are smoking a hooka (tobacco filled, of course), can he search your house? Or if you have an unregistered ATV, does that open your camp up to a legal search?
Believe me, this ruling is VERY significant and will effect your privacy rights. I strongly expect we will see a huge influx of civil rights violations as a result of unjustified searches. Just be aware, you should always have your attorney present during any type of questioning – especially if your vehicle is being searched. Tell the officer you are calling your attorney before you answer any questions or consent to any searches of your vehicle. If you are subjected to a search and denied the right to call your attorney and have him or her present, immediately call our emergency line. While I strongly believe the majority of our police officers will never abuse this new ruling, some will. Be careful. Call us if you need us. 610-845-3803.