PA Superior Court Finds Suspicionless Boat Searches Unconstitutional

On August 21, 2017, the Pennsylvania Superior decided the case of Commonwealth v. Karash, holding that the government cannot stop a boat without probable cause or reasonable suspicion. This was a case of first impression in Pennsylvania that will affect the thousands of people who utilize Pennsylvania’s waterways each year.

Commonwealth v. Karash

In Karash, the defendant was charged with not having the required safety equipment on his boat. On May 23, 2016, Mr. Karash was fishing on his boat when he was stopped by a waterways conservation officer. The officer did not see Mr. Karash do anything illegal prior to boarding his boat. Regardless, the officer boarded Mr. Karash’s boat to conduct a license check of those who were fishing. After this check was completed, and the occupants were cleared, the officer then performed a safety inspection. During this inspection, the officer determined that Mr. Karash did not have sufficient flotation devices and issued him a citation.

Mr. Karash contested his citation at a hearing. Mr. Karash litigated a Motion to Suppress where he argued that the officer lacked reasonable suspicion or probable cause to board his vessel in violation of his rights under the Pennsylvania Constitution. The magisterial district court denied his motion because 30 PA C.S. § 901 (a)(10) allows a waterways conservation officer to board a boat to make sure it is in compliance with the administrative aspects of the Fish and Boat Code (i.e. licensing requirements). It is important to note that this particular provision does not require an officer to have reasonable suspicion or probable cause for a government official to board one’s boat. After the hearing, Mr. Karash was found guilty of not having the required number of life vests and fined $75.

WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PROBABLE CAUSE AND REASONABLE SUSPICION?

Typically, a motion to suppress is a motion that asks a court to exclude evidence against a defendant because it was obtained when police acted without “probable cause” or “reasonable suspicion.” Probable cause and reasonable suspicion are similar, but distinct legal concepts.  Probable cause is mentioned in both the United States Constitution (the Fourth Amendment) and the Pennsylvania Constitution (Article I, Section 8). In order for the government to arrest you, there must be probable cause that you committed a crime. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has defined “probable cause” as “the facts and circumstances which are within the knowledge of the officer at the time of the arrest, and of which he has reasonably trustworthy information, are sufficient to warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief that the suspect has committed or is committing a crime.” Commonwealth v. Thompson, 985 A.2d 928, 203 (Pa. 2009).

“Reasonable suspicion” is different. Unlike “Probable cause,” reasonable suspicion is not mentioned in either the U.S. or Pennsylvania constitutions. Despite this, courts have allowed police officers and other government officials to stop people on “reasonable suspicion” after the United States Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Terry v. Ohio. To be clear, “reasonable suspicion” is not as rigorous a standard as “probable cause.” Additionally, a person cannot be arrested or have their home searched based on “reasonable suspicion.” However, an individual can be detained for an “investigatory detention” based on “reasonable suspicion.”  The Pennsylvania Supreme Court defines “reasonable suspicion” as “a less stringent standard than probable cause…and depends on the information possessed by the police and its degree of reliability in the totality of the circumstances…a police officer must be able to point to ‘specific and articulable facts’ leading him to suspect that criminality is afoot.” Commonwealth v. Holmes, 14 A.3d 89, 95 (Pa. 2010).   

Typically, the government needs either “reasonable suspicion” or “probable cause” to detain someone. There are exceptions when the government can make a suspicionless stop of you (i.e. point-of-entry searches at public schools for weapons and DUI checkpoints). In determining whether a suspicionless check will be upheld, Pennsylvania courts employ a “balancing test…wherein the intrusion on the individual of a particular law enforcement practice is balanced against the government’s promotion of legitimate interests.” Commonwealth v. Blouse, 611 A.2d  1177, 1167 (Pa. 1992). Thus, the issue for the Karash Court was whether suspicionless checks for boats are constitutional.

As stated above, this was a case of first impression. Thus, the Karash Court looked for guidance from other jurisdictions to see how they ruled on this issue. The United States Supreme Court addressed a similar issue in United States v. Villamonte-Marquez. In its decision, the United States Supreme Court held that the federal government could conduct suspicionless "Customs checks" on vessels with close proximity to the open sea because of the complexity of the documentation required by federal law and the governmental interest in preventing smuggling. Thus, in Villamonte-Marquez, the United States Supreme Court upheld the warrantless and suspicionless search of a ship that resulted in finding thousands of pounds of marijuana.  

Can the Police Search a Boat Without Reasonable Suspicion or Probable Cause? 

Despite the ruling in Villamonte-Marquez, the Pennsylvania Superior Court declined to follow its holding. In Karash, the Pennsylvania Superior Court held, understandably, that ensuring recreational boater safety on Pennsylvania’s waters is a legitimate government interest. Nonetheless, the Karash Court also held that government had not demonstrated that it was unable to achieve its goal of recreational boater safety by a means other than suspicionless searches. 

The Karash Court analogized the Commonwealth’s waterways to its roads. Specifically, the Court focused on DUI Checkpoints. Pennsylvania allows DUI Checkpoints, but there are extremely strict limitations that the appellate have imposed on police departments in setting up these highly intrusive checkpoints. Police do not have “unfettered discretion” and along with other guidelines (i.e. prior notice, momentary stoppage of drivers, checkpoints placed on roads where DUI’s are more likely, etc.), courts have imposed rules to reduce the intrusiveness of the checkpoints so that they may comply with the Pennsylvania Constitution.  Commonwealth v. Tarbert, 535 A.2d 1035, 1037 (PA 1987).

The Karash Court held that the Commonwealth has not employed these same safeguards on its waterways. As such, the Karash Court held that Mr. Karash’s constitutional rights were violated when the waterways conservation officer boarded his boat without probable cause or reasonable suspicion. Thus, Mr. Karash’s conviction was overturned. 

Motions to Suppress

Goldstein Mehta LLC Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorneys

Goldstein Mehta LLC Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorneys

Trials can be won and lost with a motion to suppress. If you are facing criminal charges, you need an attorney who has the knowledge and expertise to litigate these motions even when the law has yet to be conclusively established. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers have successfully fought countless cases at trial and on appeal. We offer a 15-minute criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to discuss your case with an experienced and understanding criminal defense attorney today.