PA Constitution Requires a Warrant Before Police Search Your Car. Commonwealth v. Alexander December 22, 2020 (Merry Christmas)

by | Dec 24, 2020 | Blog, Criminal Defense, Drug Crimes, Dui, Federal Crimes, Pennsylvania Criminal Law |

Pennsylvania’s constitutional protections of its citizens has always been greater than the federal constitution. Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court cases discussing the legality of a warrantless car searches reveal this fact. On December 22, 2020 Pennsylvania Supreme Court reasserted the Commonwealth’s requirement of a search warrant before allowing search of an automobile in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

This decision specifically overruled the case of Commonwealth v. Gary, 91 A.3d 102 (PA. 2014). In Gary, Pennsylvania Supreme Court in a four to four decision held the federal automobile exception to the warrant requirement of the 4th amendment to United States Constitution applied to Pennsylvania.  This was a bad decision that confirmed The United States Supreme Court’s 4th amendment jurisprudence that allowed, without consideration of any exception exigency based facts, the warrantless search of an automobile as applied to Pennsylvania citizens.

Gary however did not discuss whether such federal automobile exception to the search warrant requirement is consistent with article 1 Section 8 of Pennsylvania’s constitution.  On December 22, 2020, Commonwealth v. Alexander addressed this issue.  The facts of the case are simple. During a routine traffic stop in the City of Philadelphia the police smelled burnt marijuana emanating from the vehicle. After removing the occupants, the officer searched the interior of the car, finding a metal box behind the driver seat. The officer took Alexander’s car keys while he was detained and used one to open the box in the vehicle without a warrant. Drugs were found in this sealed container for which, after a trial, Alexander was convicted of possession with intent to deliver narcotics.

Alexander appealed the denial of his motion to suppress claiming the police officers lacked probable cause to search the vehicle and lock box and under the state Constitution a warrant was required to search the lock box as there was no exigent circumstances.   Superior Court affirmed the conviction and denial of the motion to suppress based upon 2014 Commonwealth v. Gary decision.

Alexander is significant in that it overrules Commonwealth v. Gary and reasserts long standing Pennsylvania jurisprudence that even with vehicle’s inherent mobility, a warrant is required prior searching interior contents of a motor vehicle during an otherwise ordinary traffic stop, unless exigent circumstances exist.  It is the factual basis of what constitutes exigency that began to create the warrant warrantless search exception. By this I mean, the justices focused on factual scenarios that established “probable cause arose unexpectedly” to create an excuse for a warrantless search. Alexander did not resolve this issue, but only ruled that the warrant is now the base line rule, and the exigency allowing for the warrantless search will be addressed in a case by case manner.

Exigency arguments for the police has always been that “danger to police or the public” indeed satisfies the exigency requirement for warrantless vehicle searches.  This reasoning has now been soundly overruled.

The Alexander Court references modern day reality of securing a warrant.  “Technological advances decrease the timeframe for procuring a warrant. In Missouri v. McNeely, 569 U.S. 141 (2013), the Supreme Court rejected a bright-line rule permitting warrantless blood draws in DUI cases as a per se exigency, with the high Court recognizing “technological developments that enable police officers to secure warrants more quickly, and do so without undermining the neutral magistrate judge’s essential role as a check on police discretion, are relevant to an assessment of exigency.” This the same logic should apply in the warrantless vehicular search context. The pervasiveness and efficiency of communication technology has grown exponentially. Also, the law permits stops for the enforcement of vehicle code violations which are often a pretext for purposes other than a desire to enforce the traffic laws.”

Importantly, Alexander also eliminates any good faith exception to the exclusionary rule if the police should ignore the warrant requirement now re-established. “We also add that Edmunds itself, in rejecting the “good faith” exception to the exclusionary rule, calibrated the interests of society in securing criminal convictions and law enforcement needs versus privacy protections quite differently than does the United States Supreme Court.”

The basis for that different balancing, i.e. Article I, Section 8’s link to privacy protections as advanced by the warrant requirement, cannot be ignored in this context inasmuch as weighing the same interests tends to dominate debates surrounding the wisdom of following the federal automobile exceptions.”  A finding in a case that an officer’s warrantless search was not justified by an exigency does not reflect hostility to his or her actions. It means only that our constitution places greater emphasis on the violations of privacy occasioned by an unreasonable search.

Alexander ends with the command that:  As a result of today’s decision, we return to the pre-Gary application of our limited automobile exception under Article I, Section 8 of our Constitution, pursuant to which warrantless vehicle searches require both probable cause and exigent circumstances; “one without the other is insufficient.” “This dual requirement of probable cause and exigency is an established part of our state constitutional jurisprudence.” As to the renewed application of this principle, we share the confidence expressed by Justice Todd in her dissenting opinion in Gary, specifically that police officers are “eminently capable as trained professionals of making the basic assessment of whether it is reasonably practicable for them to seek a warrant, under all of the circumstances existing at the time they wish to search an automobile.”

Obtaining a warrant is now the default rule. If an officer proceeds to conduct a warrantless search, a reviewing court will be required to determine whether exigent circumstances existed to justify the officer’s judgment that obtaining a warrant was not reasonably practicable. That the universe of qualifying “exigent circumstances” is impossible to define with precision does not justify adopting the federal automobile exception any more than the inability to supply an objective definition of whether an expectation of privacy is “reasonable” justifies jettisoning the Fourth Amendment. See Oliver v. United States, 466 U.S. 170 (1984) (“No single factor determines whether an individual legitimately may claim under the Fourth Amendment that a place should be free of government intrusion not authorized by warrant.”). Courts will have to decide, just as they did pre-Gary, whether exigent circumstances justified warrantless searches in discrete scenarios, with a focus on the particular facts.