PA Supreme Court: Police May Often Search Commercial Trucks Without a Warrant

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Maguire, holding that individuals engaged in highly regulated commercial activities such as commercial trucking are not entitled to the same constitutional safeguards as the general public. This decision is highly relevant to those engaged in the trucking industry because it permits the government to set up checkpoints that would normally not be constitutional if they were designed to stop and search the general public. Therefore, those who are employed in this industry must be especially careful when engaged in commercial activities.  

Commonwealth v. Maguire 

On May 20, 2015, the Pennsylvania State Police and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (hereinafter “DEP”) set up a commercial vehicle inspection program in accordance with 75 Pa.C.S. § 4704 which permits the police to set up a “systematic vehicle inspection program…to determine whether they meet standards established in department regulations.” The inspection was scheduled one month in advance, and it occurred at a Clinton County landfill located in McElhatten, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania State Trooper Beaver, a motor vehicle enforcement officer, and a motor carrier enforcement supervisor comprised the team that conducted the checkpoint inspections. This team was stationed in a lot in front of the scale house near the entrance of the landfill. 

This team established and utilized a procedure where the first team member available would stop the next truck entering the landfill. At approximately 2:50 PM, it was Trooper Beaver’s turn to inspect a truck when he observed the defendant driving his truck. Trooper Beaver exited his vehicle and motioned for the defendant to pull into the lot where the team was located. The defendant complied with his request. Trooper Beaver then engaged the defendant in conversation and asked him to provide him with documents pertinent to the truck and its operation. While speaking with the defendant, Trooper Beaver detected smell of alcohol on the defendant’s breath. He then reviewed the defendant’s documents and did a walk-around inspection of the truck. 

Following the inspection, Trooper Beaver had the defendant exit the truck and told him that he smelled of alcohol and asked whether he had been drinking. The defendant stated he had one beer prior to his trip to the landfill. At this point, Trooper Beaver noticed a cooler on the floor of the truck near the gearshift. Inside this cooler, he saw three Busch light beers and two bottles of water. The defendant was then asked to perform a field sobriety test, which he failed. The defendant was then placed under arrest and transported to the Jersey Shore Hospital for blood testing. He was subsequently charged with DUI and five other counts of unlawful activities. 

The Motion to Suppress

The defendant then filed a motion to suppress the evidence. In his motion to suppress, the defendant argued that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated because Trooper Beaver and his team did not comply with the Tarbert/Blouse guidelines which were promulgated to test the constitutionality of systematic, police-conducted vehicle checkpoints which were used to stop members of the general public (specifically for DUI’s). The trial court held a hearing at which Trooper Beaver was the only witness to testify. At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court ordered the parties to submit post-hearing briefs. The Commonwealth filed a brief arguing that the Tarbert/Blouse guidelines are inapplicable to the commercial vehicle safety checkpoints that were used in the instant case. The trial court agreed with the defendant and granted his motion to suppress. The Commonwealth then filed a timely appeal. 

On appeal, the Superior Court agreed with the Commonwealth. The Superior Court held that the Tarber/Blouse guidelines did not apply to a checkpoint for commercial vehicles. Instead, the trial court should have analyzed the checkpoint under the factors discussed in the United States Supreme Court’s case in New York v. Burger (these are guidelines that are directed at commercial related activities). Based on these Burger factors, the Superior Court held that the search was constitutional and reversed the trial court. The defendant then filed a petition for allowance of appeal, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review.

What are the Tarbert/Blouse Guidelines? 

The Tarbert/Blouse guidelines are factors that a court uses to determine whether a checkpoint is constitutional. Remember, the Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. If the police stop you at one of these checkpoints, this is technically a seizure. These checkpoints are commonly used to deter and arrest people who are suspected of driving under the influence. Pennsylvania appellate courts have held that these checkpoints are constitutional, so long as they sufficiently comply with the Tarbert/ Blouse guidelines.

According to the guidelines:

1) vehicle stops must be brief and must not entail a physical search;

2) there must be sufficient warning of the existence of the checkpoint;

3) the decision to conduct a checkpoint, as well as the decisions as to time and place for the checkpoint, must be subject to prior administrative approval;

4) the choice of time and place for the checkpoint must be based on local experience as to where and when intoxicated drivers are likely to be traveling; and

5) the decision as to which vehicles to stop at the checkpoint must be established by administratively pre-fixed, objective standards, and must not be left to the unfettered discretion of the officers at the scene.

It is important to remember that it is not required that all of these guidelines are present. Rather, they are just guidelines to determine whether the checkpoint in question is sufficiently compliant with the constitution.    

What are the Burger Factors? 

The Burger Court recognized owners of a commercial business or vehicle in a closely regulated industry have a substantially reduced expectation of privacy, and therefore, the Fourth Amendment warrant and probable cause requirements are lower for these individuals. Therefore, a warrantless inspection is constitutional if: 1) there is a substantial governmental interest informing the regulatory scheme pursuant to which the inspection was made; 2) warrantless inspections are necessary to advance the regulatory scheme; and 3) the statute’s inspection program is applied with such certainty and regularity as to prove a constitutionally adequate substitute for a warrant.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s Decision 

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the Superior Court’s decision and held that the Tarbert/Blouse guidelines were not applicable to the instant case. The Court reasoned that when the defendant was stopped, he was engaged in the trucking business, which is a closely regulated industry. Additionally, the Court stated that “owners of certain closely regulated businesses should expect that their businesses would be subject to warrantless administrative searches.” Therefore, the defendant had a reduced expectation of privacy when he was engaged in his trucking business. As such, his case will be remanded to the trial court and the Commonwealth will be able to use all the evidence that was suppressed in their case against him. 

Facing criminal charges? We can help.

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers Demetra Mehta and Zak Goldstein

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers Demetra Mehta and Zak Goldstein

If you are facing criminal charges or under investigation by the police, we can help. We have successfully defended thousands of clients against criminal charges in courts throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We have successfully obtained full acquittals in cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, Aggravated Assault, Rape, and Attempted Murder. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers offer a free criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding defense attorney today.


Note: Goldstein Mehta LLC’s Philadelphia Criminal Defense Blog was recently recognized as one of the Top 50 Criminal Defense Blogs on the web by Feedspot.com. We greatly appreciate this recognition.