Pennsylvania’s Rejection of Automobile Exception to Warrant Requirement Questioned


I recently spent a Thursday evening watching taped oral arguments from lawyers before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on the Pennsylvania Cable Network. In the case of Commonwealth v. Gary, the Court is considering whether or not it should adopt the Federal standard regarding the search of automobiles, generally referred to as the automobile exception.  For Centre County residents, this decision could impact the many felony drug charge investigations that are handled by the police on Interstate 80.

Federal Automobile Exception to Search Warrant Requirement

Most people know that the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that the police must obtain a warrant based upon probable cause before a search can be conducted. While the Constitution generally requires that the police obtain a warrant before conducting a search, court rulings have created exceptions in which a warrant is not required before a search is done. For example, if a person consents to the search, then the police are not required to obtain a warrant prior to conducting the search.

Federal court decisions also have ruled that a warrant is not required to search a vehicle when a suspect is stopped under what is called the “automobile exception.” The rationale for this exception is said to be that it is impracticable to obtain warrants for vehicles in transit because of their highly mobile nature and a failure to immediately search may result in the destruction or loss of evidence. Back in 1925, in the case of Carroll v. U.S., the U.S. Supreme Court stated that an automobile search could be conducted without a warrant if the police had probable cause to believe that automobile contained contraband or evidence of a crime. Over the years, this exception to the warrant requirement has been called the “automobile exception.” In the decision of Chambers v. Maroney, the U.S. Supreme Court best explained the exception to the warrant as being justified because the occupants are aware that they are under police scrutiny, the car is movable, and the evidence contained in the car may never be found again if the police wait to obtain a warrant before searching. The “automobile exception” has been a part of Federal law since the 1925 Carroll decision.

Pennsylvania Rejects “Automobile Exception”

Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution provides that “[t]he 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.” While this language sounds very similar to the language used in the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has held that the Pennsylvania Constitution offers more protection to persons within its borders when compared to the Federal Constitution.

In the case of the automobile exception, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has stated that the federal “automobile exception” is violative of Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The Court has adopted a limited automobile exception that requires the police to possess probable cause to believe that the car contains evidence of a crime AND there must be exigent circumstances. Under Federal law, the mere mobility of the vehicle is “exigent circumstances,” but the Pennsylvania courts have rejected that approach. In Commonwealth v. Stewart, the Superior Court noted that “exigent circumstances arise where the need for prompt police action is imperative, either because evidence is likely to be destroyed … or because there exists a threat of physical harm to police officers or other innocent individuals.” Basically, exigent circumstances means that the police must take prompt action and search immediately to avoid the destruction of evidence or a threat to the safety of people. For example, if the police believed that the car contained a bomb or explosive device, they could readily search under “exigent circumstances” for safety purposes.

Are There Exigent Circumstances When a Defendant Is Arrested?

The current challenge to the “automobile exception” involves a case in which the defendant was arrested and in the custody of the police. In watching the Supreme Court justices question the prosecuting attorney, it was clear that they also questioned the argument that evidence contained in the vehicle could be destroyed when the defendant was arrested and the vehicle was in the control of the police. At that time, the police can prevent anyone from entering the vehicle to destroy evidence, and the police can have the vehicle towed to a secure location until a warrant is obtained.

As a criminal defense lawyer, I am hoping that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejects the prosecution argument and continues to protect the privacy interests of its citizens. Generally speaking, both the Federal and Pennsylvania constitutions require issuance of a warrant based upon probable cause before a search is conducted, and Pennsylvania should continue with its interpretation of Pennsylvania law and not upset decades of precedent.