car search

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.  

Can the Police Search My Car?

Can the Police Search Your Car? 

If the police searched your car and uncovered illegal contraband in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, you should speak with one of our Philadelphia criminal lawyers today. Our defense attorneys have won many motions to suppress and constructive possession trials in cases involving guns, drugs, and other illegally seized evidence. We will fight for your constitutional rights and to ensure that illegally seized items are not introduced into evidence against you. Call 267-225-2545 for a complimentary criminal defense strategy session with one of our top-rated Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers.

Do Police Need a Search Warrant to Search a Car? 

The legality of car searches by the police is frequently at issue in cases involving possessory offenses such as firearms cases and drug possession cases. In general, if the police conduct an illegal search or seizure, then the evidence obtained as a result of the illegal conduct could be suppressed. In many cases, the suppression of the critical evidence could lead to the dismissal of charges. However, the police typically have more authority for when they can search your car than for when they can search a house.

The general rule under the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions is that law enforcement officers need a search warrant to conduct a search. However, the courts have created so many exceptions to this general rule that the rule essentially only applies to searches of houses or other types of residences and more recently, cell phones. Unsurprisingly, there are a number of exceptions which could permit a police search of a vehicle without a search warrant depending on the facts of the case.

Consent to Search the Vehicle

First, the police can always conduct a search when they have the consent of the owner or operator of the vehicle. If the police pull over a vehicle for a traffic infraction and are suspicious of the driver for some reason, they can always ask the driver for permission to search the car. If the driver gives them permission, then they may search the car and can use anything that they find as evidence in court. The only challenges which could be brought via a Motion to Suppress in this instance would be to the legality of the initial stop and whether the driver actually gave consent or whether the consent was fabricated or coerced.

Therefore, our advice is that you should not give permission or consent should the police ask if they can search your car. However, if the police decide to conduct a search anyway, you should not attempt to resist. Instead, it is best to remain calm while they conduct the search and speak with an attorney about your legal options once the encounter has ended.

Police Usually Need Probable Cause to Conduct a VEHICLE Search

Second, courts have developed an “automobile exception” to the warrant requirement. Under the United States Constitution, police officers and federal agents typically do not need a warrant to conduct a search of a vehicle. Instead, because of the inherent mobility of an automobile, they may search the vehicle if they have probable cause to do so. Probable cause means that it is more likely than not that the police will find contraband or some evidence of a crime. Thus, if police have probable cause, they do not have to obtain a warrant or consent prior to conduct a search.

An example would be a situation in which police pull a suspect over for swerving and upon approach, the officers believe the driver to be under the influence of alcohol. While questioning the driver, one of the officers smells alcohol coming from inside the actual vehicle. In that case, a prosecutor would argue that police have probable cause to enter the vehicle and determine the source of the odor because it was more likely than not that police might find spilled alcohol or a beer can which would be evidence in the subsequent DUI case against the driver.

Until recently, Pennsylvania took a more limited approach to the automobile exception. Previously, in order to evade the warrant requirement, prosecutors were required to show both that the police had probable cause to search a vehicle and that some sort of exigent circumstances applied, meaning that evidence could be lost should the police be required to obtain a warrant. However, in Commonwealth v. Gary, the Pennsylvania Supreme court abolished the exigent circumstances requirement and adopted the federal automobile exception, meaning that police can now search a vehicle whenever they have probable cause to do so.

Other Exceptions Which Allow Law Enforcement to Search a Car

Third, there are a number of other potential scenarios in which the police can search a car without a warrant. For example, if the police end up arresting the driver of the car, then there are some circumstances in which the police may conduct a search of the car as a “search incident to arrest.” However, in Arizona v. Gant, the United States Supreme Court held that police may only conduct this type of search incident to arrest of a car when the police reasonably believe that they are likely to find evidence of the offense of arrest. This means that officers cannot automatically search a car as a search incident to an arrest for a suspended registration or suspended driver’s license. Instead, police must have some reason to believe they are going to find more evidence of the crime for which they arrested the driver in the vehicle.

Additionally, the police may, in some occasions, conduct an inventory search of a car if they are required to tow it after arresting or citing the driver. However, recent case law has substantially limited the authority of the police to conduct an inventory search of a car (commonly called a LIVESTOP in Philadelphia), and some of these inventory searches are now subject to challenge with a motion to suppress.

Police Can Sometimes Frisk A Car

Finally, police may also conduct a limited search of a vehicle if they have reasonable suspicion that the driver or passenger was engaged in criminal activity and that he or she was armed an dangerous. In that situation, the Terry doctrine allows them to conduct a “frisk” of the areas which were accessible to the driver to ensure that the driver will not have access to weapons if he or she is allowed to return to the vehicle. Of course, if the police find contraband or are able to see contraband while conducting the frisk, then they may enter the vehicle to retrieve the contraband and use it as evidence in a criminal prosecution under the plain view or plain feel doctrines.

There are other exceptions to these general rules and other issues which frequently come up such as K9 searches and the duration of time during which the police may detain a vehicle an conduct an investigation pursuant to a traffic stop. However, those issues will be the subject of future articles.

How A Philadelphia Criminal Lawyer Can Help

Clearly, there are a lot of exceptions which allow the police to search a car without a warrant, and we are likely at a point where the exceptions have begun to swallow the rule. This means that the answer to the question, “Can the police search my car?” is unfortunately that it depends on the circumstances. It is clear that police are not required to obtain a search warrant to search a car during a traffic stop. Instead, they are typically going to be required to make some sort of showing of either probable cause or reasonable suspicion in order to justify a search, and these searches are often subject to challenge with a motion to suppress.

If it can be shown that the initial stop was illegal, or that the police did not have actual reason to believe that they would find contraband in the car, it may be possible to have the evidence suppressed and excluded at trial. Likewise, if the police claim that the defendant consented to the search but the defendant and witnesses in the car disagree, it may be possible to prove that the consent was fabricated or coerced. Each case is different, and despite the elimination of the warrant requirement for vehicle searches, there are still real limits on the ability of the police to search a car. The bottom line is that illegally seized evidence usually cannot be used against you in court, and in many cases, it remains possible to challenge the warrantless search of an automobile. 

If the police searched your car and found something illegal in Pennsylvania or New jersey, you need the services of one of our Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers. We have won countless motions to suppress and trials on gun and drug charges. We will fight to protect your rights and make sure that illegally seized evidence is not used against you. Call 267-225-2545 for a complimentary criminal defense strategy session with one of our top-rated Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers.