If you get pulled over in Pennsylvania, police can now search your vehicle without first obtaining a warrant.
A 4-2 split decision from a state Supreme Court has given the green light to officers to search a car based simply on probable cause. Previously, Pennsylvania police officers typically needed to obtain a warrant to conduct a vehicle search unless the driver consented, according to The Patriot-News newspaper.
Writing for themajority, Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice Seamus P. McCaffery noted that, "there is a diminished expectation of privacy in motor vehicles", and pointed out that federal law already permits warrantless searches of vehicles if officers have probable cause. That law dates back to the Prohibition Era of the 1920s, when federal agents chased bootleggers trafficking alcohol across state lines.
In 2014, the modern parallel is a marijuana trafficking route from Florida to New York, which passes through Pennsylvania. The case that brought the issue to court involved a 2010 traffic stop in Philadelphia. Officers reportedly pulled over the vehicle and smelled marijuana. That resulted in a probable-cause search, during which police discovered two pounds of marijuana.
At the same time, a bill is being advanced in the state legislature that seeks to target drug traffickers. The proposal would outlaw cars with “secret compartments” that could be used to conceal contraband. The secret compartment bill was unanimously approved in the House Judiciary Committee and sent to the full House for consideration. It is unclear when a floor vote will occur.
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The legislation would make having these compartments a first-degree misdemeanor, yielding up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine, if police can prove that it exists with criminal intent. Additionally, the vehicle would be seized by police.
As Pennsylvania’s Times Herald newspaper notes, a similar secret compartments law went into effect last year in neighboring Ohio. In November, a local man was stopped, and police claimed to smell marijuana in the car. They searched the vehicle under probable cause without finding any marijuana. They did, however, arrest the suspect after finding one of the compartments, which was empty.
“Without the hidden compartment law, we would not have had any charges on the suspect,” Lt. Michael Combs of the state highway patrol told Ohio’s WKYC-TV.
State Rep. Kate Harper, R-Montgomery, the Pennsylvania bill’s sponsor, says she only wants to target those who are using the compartment for illegal behavior.
But the lack of contraband required to arrest the suspect raises red flags for some who fear the laws lead to questionable police tactics.
“There was nothing illegal in the car or on [the suspect]. However, just have a hidden compartment in your car can now be charged as a crime in Ohio,” Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, wrote. “It is part of the expanding criminalization of America where virtually any act can be charged as a crime by police.”
Police already have criminal enterprise and conspiracy laws they can use to make busts in the drug trade, even if no drugs are found Turley added.
State Supreme Court Justice Debra McCloskey, writing for the court's minority, said that the majority’s decision "severely diminishes" the "important personal privacy rights which owners and occupants of automobiles possess therein."
“By so doing, our court heedlessly contravenes over 225 years of unyielding protection against unreasonable search and seizure which our people have enjoyed as their birthright,” she wrote.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.