PA Supreme Court: Police May Not Search Car Parked in Driveway Without Warrant

Can The Police Search My Car Without A Warrant If It's In My Driveway?

Criminal Defense Attorney Demetra Mehta, Esq.

Criminal Defense Attorney Demetra Mehta, Esq.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has just decided the case of Commonwealth v. Loughnane, holding that the automobile exception to the warrant requirement does not apply to a car parked in a residential driveway. This decision provides a commonsense limitation on the ability of the police to search private property in Pennsylvania and follows a recent trend of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court seeking to increase privacy protections for the Commonwealth's citizens. 

Commonwealth v. Loughnane

In Loughnane, the defendant was charged with accidents involving death or serious injury. On July 24, 2012, a large dark-colored truck struck and killed the victim while she was outside of her apartment that she shared with her boyfriend in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Her boyfriend witnessed the accident. When the boyfriend reported the accident to the police, he told them that the truck which hit the decedent was a large, dark-colored truck that had a distinctive sound.  

A few weeks later, the boyfriend's father drove through a residential neighborhood and saw a truck that matched the description provided by his son parked in a residential driveway. He called his son, and his son came to this residence and identified the truck as the one he saw on July 24. The boyfriend then called the police. Later that day, police detectives went to the house, ran the truck's license plate, and determined that the truck belonged to the defendant. Detectives then unsuccessfully attempted to contact the defendant.  

After failing to reach the defendant, police sought guidance from the local prosecutors. Apparently, at some point during the investigation, the lead detective learned that the keys to the truck were inside the automobile. Believing that it was about to rain and potential forensic evidence could be lost, the police decided to take action without obtaining a search warrant. They towed the truck to the Wilkes-Barre police garage. Four days later, they obtained a search warrant for the vehicle. The search did not result in the discovery of any evidence. However, they brought the boyfriend back to the police station to make a second identification of the truck. They also turned the truck on and revved the engine, and the boyfriend confirmed that the engine sounded the same as the engine on the truck that hit the decedent. 

The defendant was arrested and charged with Accidents involving death or serious bodily injury (hit and run). The defense filed pre-trial Motions to Suppress. At the Motion to Suppress hearing, the defendant's defense lawyer successfully moved to suppress the boyfriend's police station identification of the vehicle. The suppression court granted the motion because the truck was taken from the defendant's private property and there were no exigent circumstances that justified the warrantless taking of the truck. The Commonwealth then filed an interlocutory appeal. The Superior Court reversed the decision of the trial court and ordered that the Commonwealth be allowed to use the results of the warrantless seizure. In its opinion, the Superior Court inexplicably ruled that a private driveway does not provide any reasonable expectation of privacy becasue it is not part of the curtilage of a home. This ruling was contradicted by dozens of cases in Pennsylvania, the federal courts, and other states.  Therefore, the defendant then asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to review the Superior Court's decision, and the Supreme Court agreed. 

Limits to the Automobile Exception

On appeal, the defendant asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to decide whether the automobile exception applies to automobiles parked in driveways of private residences. The defendant argued that the automobile exception does not apply to vehicles in private residential driveways. As a preliminary matter, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court corrected the Superior Court and held that a driveway is constitutionally protected curtilage. This was crucial because in order to have a valid constitutional claim, one must have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the person, place, or thing that the government searched or seized.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court then addressed whether the automobile exception applies to cars parked in a residential driveway. In making its determination, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court analyzed federal and other state cases that addressed the automobile exception.

In its analysis, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court highlighted the fact that in cases that upheld the automobile exception, a deciding factor was that the automobile was in a public space. This is consistent with the United States Supreme Court’s justification for the automobile exception (the inherent mobility of motor vehicles and that an individual has a reduced expectation of privacy in a vehicle as compared to an individual’s home or office).

However, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court did not end its analysis there. It also reviewed federal circuit court and other states’ decisions that found the automobile exception inapplicable. In those cases, the courts consistently held that the automobile exception did not apply when the car was parked in a residential driveway. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court went on to say that “[because] none of the justifications for the automobile exception apply to vehicles parked in a residential driveway, there is no reason for the exception to apply.” Thus, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court adopted the rationale of these courts and held that the automobile exception does not apply to automobiles that are parked in residential driveways. If the Commonwealth searches or seizes an individual’s car without a warrant, the limited automobile exception applies and there must be both probable cause and exigent circumstances.   

Motions to Suppress

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorney

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorney

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