Is it Legal for the Police to Search My Car If They Don't Have a Search Warrant?

Alfonso Gambone
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A Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer representing accused persons throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution allows warrantless searches of automobiles and occupants where there is probable cause to believe that contraband or other illegal items are in the vehicle even where it may be practicable to obtain a warrant. The Fourth Amendment also allows a search of the vehicle following the valid arrest of its occupant where there are reasonable grounds to believe that contraband or illegal items related to the arrest will be found without a warrant. Pennsylvania, however, provides more Constitutional protections through its own Constitution than initially provided to all citizens under the U.S. Constitution. It is important to keep in mind that while a State’s Constitution is not permitted to provide less protection to individuals there is no prohibition against a higher level of protection.

In Pennsylvania law enforcement are not permitted to search an automobile without probable cause and a search warrant unless exigent circumstances justify a warrantless search. Probable cause exists where a law enforcement officer can articulate that the individual who is the subject of the search has committed, is committing, or is in the possession of contraband, weapons, or some other illegal item. The prosecution cannot establish probable cause based on suspicions or hunches but rather through the testimony of a police officer who provides specific and articulable facts. Probable cause is based on a totality of the circumstances analysis and a Court will therefore will look at all factors in reaching its decision.

Despite a lack of probable cause, a police officer may still conduct an investigative stop of a suspect if the officer, based on his/her experience, has reasonable suspicion that a crime is occurring. This investigative stop allows law enforcement to conduct what is known as a “Terry Stop.” A Terry Stop allows law enforcement to order a suspect out of the vehicle and perform a frisk. This type of stop is constitutional and these limited intrusions on a person’s liberty are justified to ensure law enforcements safety.

It is important to understand that not all interactions with law enforcement are protected by the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article 1 Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. Courts have defined three forms of police-citizen interaction: a mere encounter, an investigative detention, and a custodial detention. A mere encounter is not protected by the U.S. Constitution. A police officer is therefore free to speak with a citizen without any level of suspicion. While a citizen is free to answer the officer’s questions he/she is under no obligation to do so and is free to ignore the officer’s attempt to obtain information. The remaining two forms of police-citizen interaction, however, do trigger Constitutional protections provided that the circumstances surrounding the interaction demonstrate that a reasonable person would not feel free to decline the officer’s request for information or otherwise terminate the encounter with the officer.

While there are different levels of interactions with police officers, Pennsylvania still allows a police officer to order a suspect out of a vehicle following a traffic stop with no reasonable suspicion or probable cause. The officer, however, is only permitted this power for a limited amount of time after the stop. If the circumstances following the stop indicate that the officer completed his initial interaction with the citizen, the officer would need then to show reasonable suspicion that a crime was occurring. By way of an example, a police officer may observe a vehicle go through a stop sign. The violation of a traffic code allows the officer to order the person out of the vehicle. If he does not do so, however, and questions the driver after giving him/her a traffic ticket, the officer then needs some type of reasonable suspicion to search the driver or the car.

In closing, it is important to understand that you may or may not have constitutional protections against a warrantless search. If you are stopped by law enforcement you should never consent to the search of your person or your vehicle. If the officer searches without your consent show him or her the proper respect but do not make a statement or consent in any way to the search. If you are arrested immediately seek the advice and counsel of a criminal defense attorney so that you can properly explore possible violations of your rights.

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