Our criminal defense law firm defends individuals charged with the illegal possession of contraband which includes illegal handguns, firearms, weapons, along with narcotics, illegal drugs, and other controlled dangerous substances (CDS) in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Most of these arrests begin following a vehicle stop, usually for a minor traffic code violation. Always remember that a traffic code violation (speeding, stop sign, etc.) provide police with probable cause to stop a vehicle. If police don’t have probable cause for the initial stop, all the evidence following that illegal stop is potentially inadmissible in Court based on the legal doctrine commonly known as “fruit of the poisonous tree.”
I’ve written a number of articles on warrantless searches in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but it is important to understand that police don’t need a search warrant to search your vehicle if they can establish probable cause that the vehicle contains contraband (i.e. illegal drugs or weapons). Law enforcement or police can establish probable cause utilizing their training, experience, and a totality of the facts surrounding the basis for the belief which would include the odor of drugs, the presence of drug paraphernalia and even the “nervousness” of the occupants.
Protective Sweeps vs. Warrantless Searches
In addition to warrantless searches based on probable cause to believe that the car contains contraband, police may also perform a protective sweep for their own safety. There is, however, a difference between a protective sweep search and a search based on probable cause. A protective sweep for police officer safety only requires that law enforcement establish reasonable suspicion, which is a lower form of probable cause. The search, however, is only justified if police can establish reasonable suspicion based on a totality of circumstances that the car contains a weapon which could compromise the officer’s safety.
Protective Sweeps in Pennsylvania
The Pennsylvania Superior Court has already ruled that reasonable suspicion does not exist where police officers stop a car for excessively tinted windows where none of the driver’s actions were sufficiently suspicious to require a search of the vehicle. The court has held, however, that there is reasonable suspicion based on furtive movements.
Probable Cause vs. Reasonable Suspicion - Burden of Proof
With regards to searching a vehicle based on the belief that it contains illegal drugs and narcotics, remember that there is a higher burden of proof on the Commonwealth (prosecution). Despite this higher burden, the United States Supreme Court provides a very broad definition of probable cause at the federal level but Pennsylvania courts can offer further protections through the Pennsylvania Constitution despite the Supreme Court’s interpretation. The Pennsylvania Superior Court has found that no probable cause existed where a defendant, following a vehicle stop, was found in possession of a black plastic bag. In another case, the same Court found no probable where the police officer failed to explain how his training and experience led him to recognize that a compartment within a vehicle was “commonly used to transport guns, guns, and US currency”.
Traffic Stops Tips—The Duration Matters
There are situations where police remove a driver from a vehicle, but keep in mind that police can only conduct a frisk of a suspect if they can establish reasonable suspicion or probable cause to search based on the belief that the subject presented a danger to police. Finally, if police do stop your vehicle, please remember that a traffic violation authorizes police to detain a car for a certain amount of time only. If the duration becomes extensive an additional reasonable suspicion is needed to sustain it. In Pennsylvania, the courts judge the length of a traffic stop if it exceeds the normal time it should take to issue a warning.
For more information on probable cause, reasonable suspicion, and illegal search and seizure issues, keep reading this blog and keep reading my free download section.