PA Superior Court: If Police Have Probable Cause to Search a Car, They May Search All Containers In the Car

Police May Search Bags and Purses in a Car If They Have Probable Cause to Search the Car

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has just decided the case of Commonwealth v. Runyan, 2017 PA Super 114. In Runyan, the Commonwealth sought reversal of a suppression order which found that police could not automatically search the purse of a passenger in an automobile even where police had probable cause to search the car itself. The Superior Court held that if police have probable cause to search a car, they may search all containers within the car in which they could reasonably expect to find the object of their search. Accordingly, police in Pennsylvania no longer need a search warrant in order to search bags or other containers in a car if they have probable cause for the search of the car. This is true regardless of whether there is any link between the container being searched and the driver of the car. In other words, police may search the purses and luggage of passengers in the car.  

The Car Search

In Runyan, local police officers in Mercer County observed a sedan parked with four occupants in it. Police observed the sedan in an area that the officers described as a high crime, high drug area. The vehicle was parked there late at night, so officers approached the vehicle to see what was going on.

As one of the officers approached the vehicle, he smelled the door of burnt marijuana coming from the area around the vehicle. When he walked up to the passenger side door, he could see a small bag of marijuana on the back seat passenger side floor. Naturally, the officer mentioned the bag of marijuana to the occupants of the car. The driver then attempted to crawl from the front of the car into the back seat and exit the car. At that point, the police officers asked everyone to get out of the car, handcuffed each occupant of the car, and began searching the vehicle.

Upon searching the car, the officer recovered the bag of marijuana which he had seen on the floor. Additionally, he found a number of purses in the car, and the officer searched those purposes. In one of the purses, he found a spoon, syringe, and crack pipe. The spoon had white residue on it, so the officer concluded that he had found drug paraphernalia. In another purse, the officer found a spoon with white residue on it and a number of syringes. That purse, unfortunately, also had the identification card for the defendant, Ms. Runyan.

Possession of Drug Paraphernalia

Based on the discovery of the drug paraphernalia in the purse, the officers arrested Ms. Runyan and charged her with possession of drug paraphernalia. Ms. Runyan moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that although police may have had probable cause to search the car, they were required to and did not have independent probable cause to search her purse. The trial court agreed and granted the motion to suppress. The court found that the “warrantless search of purses of passengers of a vehicle is not justified by the search incident to arrest exception.”

Police May Search A Car Without A Warrant – But They Must Have Probable Cause

The Commonwealth appealed, and the Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed the trial court’s order suppressing the drug paraphernalia. The Superior Court cited the recent case of Commonwealth v. Gary in which the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that police do not need a warrant to search an automobile. Instead, because of the inherent movability of a vehicle and possibility that evidence could be lost during the delay inherent in obtaining a warrant, police may search an automobile whenever they have probable cause to do so. Probable cause means that it is more likely than not that the police will find some sort of contraband or evidence in the car. Obviously, the odor of marijuana, bag of marijuana in plain view, driver’s attempt to flee from the back of the car, and the officer’s extensive experience in making drug and marijuana arrests all combined to establish probable cause that there would be some kind of drugs or more marijuana in the vehicle. Therefore, the Superior Court held that officers could search any container in the car in which the contraband could be concealed, including Ms. Runyan’s purse.

The United States Supreme Court has already held that police may search any containers within a car when police have probable cause to do so. Therefore, following the Pennsylvania Superior Court’s decision, Pennsylvania and federal courts will now apply the same standard in automobile search cases. Police need only probable cause in order to search any container within the car.

There Are Defenses in Car Search Cases

Despite the Superior Court’s ruling, there are often still defenses in cases involving searches of cars. Although police may search the car and the containers therein when they have probable cause, it is often possible to challenge both the initial stop of the vehicle and whether the police really had the probable cause to conduct the search. First, depending on the type of stop, police must have either reasonable suspicion or probable cause to actually conduct a stop of a vehicle. If the defense can show that the police stopped the car arbitrarily or pretextually, it may be possible to have all of the results of the stop suppressed. Second, if the police did not actually have probable cause to search the car, then the results of the illegal search would be suppressed. Here, police saw drugs in plain view and the driver attempted to flee, but in many cases, the evidence of contraband is not so obvious and can be challenged. Finally, many drug possession and gun possession cases raise issues of constructive possession. In this case, Ms. Runyan made the foolish decision to store her identification card with her drug paraphernalia. However, in most cases, people do not do that. Had her ID not been with the contraband, then police would have had a difficult time establishing to whom the purse belonged without some kind of statement.  

A Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Can Help With Drug Cases  

Zak T. Goldstein, Esq - Philadelphia Drug Lawyer

Zak T. Goldstein, Esq - Philadelphia Drug Lawyer

The Philadelphia Criminal Defense and Drug Defense Lawyers of Goldstein Mehta LLC can help with drug and gun cases in Philadelphia. We have litigated and won countless motions to suppress and possession cases involving vehicle searches and other searches in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Our lawyers will work closely with you to build the strongest possible defense to your charges. Call 267-225-2545 for a complimentary, 15-minute criminal defense strategy session.