Pennsylvania Supreme Court Holds that Probable Cause and Exigent Circumstances are Required for the Warrantless Search of a Vehicle

The people shall be secure in their persons, houses, papers and possessions from unreasonable searches and seizures, and no warrant to search any place or to seize any person or things shall issue without describing them as nearly as may be, nor without probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation subscribed to by the affiant. Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

This week the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a decision in Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Keith Alexander, 2020 WL 7567601, *1 (2020) (full decision here) directly addressing Article I, Section 8 (reproduced in its entirety above) of the Pennsylvania Constitution’s application to searches of vehicles and asked “whether the violation of privacy interests inherent in allowing widespread warrantless searches is compatible with the Pennsylvania Constitution.” To the Court’s credit, they unequivocally answered: “[w]e think it is not.” Alexander at *46. “[O]ur 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.” Id. Following this decision, “warrantless vehicle searches require both probable cause and exigent circumstances; ‘one without the other is insufficient.’ ” Id. at *52 (internal citation omitted).

To understand why this is significant, you may first need a basic primer on the law involved:

The Fourth Amendment and Article I, Section 8, in broad strokes, protect against unreasonable searches and seizures by generally requiring a warrant, issued by a judge and based upon probable cause.

Probable Cause is a similarly broad concept, but boils down to whether the facts and circumstances are sufficient for a person of reasonable caution to believe a crime has been, or is being, committed. Com. v. Hernandez, 594 Pa. 319, 335 (2007).

Exigent Circumstances generally means some type of emergency, or exigency, necessitating an immediate action. Common examples include: imminent danger to persons, imminent destruction of evidence, or escape of suspects.

The nuances and exceptions to the above concepts are voluminous, but the focus of this article is on vehicles.

In 1925, the U.S. Supreme Court first upheld the warrantless search of an automobile under the Fourth Amendment, provided the officer still had probable cause, because securing a warrant was impractical and it could be quickly moved out of the locality or jurisdiction. See Carroll v. U.S., 267 U.S. 132, 153 (1925). As time advanced, the impracticality of securing a warrant became irrelevant to the analysis. By 2018, warrantless searches of vehicles based solely on probable cause were justifiable on the combination of inherent mobility and the public’s “reduced expectations of privacy” as a result of “pervasive governmental regulation” and local law enforcement’s regular contact with motor vehicles. See Alexander at *5.

Pennsylvania case-law generally followed federal case-law, but began to separate on the issue of vehicle searches in the mid-1990s. However, in a divided, non-binding 2014 decision, the PA Supreme Court upheld a warrantless vehicle search based only on probable cause, seemingly in line with federal jurisprudence. However, the Court did not directly consider Article 1, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

This week’s Alexander decision directly addresses the Pennsylvania Constitution and makes clear that “..Article I, Section 8 affords greater protection to our citizens than the Fourth Amendment…” Id. at *2. The Court declined to give a definition or examples of exigent circumstances that would or might be applicable and explained that a reviewing court will need to assess the totality of the circumstances presented to the officer. Regardless, the PA Supreme Court should be lauded for upholding our constitutional protections, even where it would have been convenient to do otherwise.

The information presented in this article is done so for educational purposes and does not constitute legal advice. These issues are heavily dependent on specific facts and circumstances. If you or someone you you know would like to speak to an attorney regarding your rights or responsibilities in detail, contact us.

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